John From Cincinnati

This weekend, I was delighted to discover that John From Cincinnati was now on Comcast on Demand. Yay! I love this show — very few people I know watched it and no one, as far as I know, liked it. I did. If this review interests you, check it out:

Now, John From Cincinnati is not really in anyone’s canon. It’s barely remembered except as a variable punchline for whatever successful TV isn’t. (In that regard and no others, it was the original Low Winter Sun.) It was about surfing, which probably scared off people who don’t care about surfing, but it’s also about surfing in the weirdest way possible, which I assume didn’t sit well with surfing obsessives. (It’s the Friday Night Lights problem, except with more pantheistic allegory.) It is the most inscrutable work from a barely scrutable creator. It is hard to say what, precisely, happens on the show. (The slowest season of Mad Men looks like Scandal by comparison.) Whenever I tell people to watch the show, they inevitably ask me something to the effect of “Is that actually good?” in a manner that reminds me that “goodness” on television is still fundamentally binary (“Is this more worth watching than whatever else I need to watch?”). It’s hard to tell people that they need to watch a show that is guaranteed to frustrate them.

And yet.

John From Cincinnati is essential viewing for anyone who cares about television, partially because it challenges every aspect of conventional wisdom about the medium and mainly because it is so willfully hard to pin down. TV has trended faster and more obviously genre-oriented in the last five years: fantasy, horror, political thriller, a show about detectives called True Detective. Even the new batches of streaming shows from various content providers feels more plucky than experimental: They’re all set in New York or Los Angeles, or they have some kind of fantastical “hook.” (He’s a slacker ghostbuster! The apocalypse is happening, and Jamie Kennedy is a clown!)

John From Cincinnati has none of these things, though not for lack of trying. The simplest way to describe it is: “What if Jesus Christ appeared today and decided to spread his message mostly vis a vis a family of surfers?” But that doesn’t really capture what makes the show interesting.

David Milch doesn’t really write dialogue so much as he writes glorious musings, which makes his best work feel a bit like an extended tangent. John From Cincinnanti is the Tangent-As-Purpose. The lead character (played by Austin Nichols with admirably awful hair) might be an alien or a robot or the reincarnation of Christ or the reincarnation of Jim Carrey in The Majestic. The show is initially constructed around his interactions with the Yost family, a clan of surfing royalty.

But the show quickly expands its ensemble to include a whole host of characters who could be termed “misfits” if the series didn’t strive so hard to imbue their remarkably smallscale dramas with depth. It’s a show about drug addiction and repressed trauma, a show about loss but also one of the most optimistic dramas to ever come out of HBO. Luiz Guzman is on the show, barely. There is an incredible scene that requires no context wherein former ’90s teen star Luke Perry has a serious conversation with former ’90s teen star Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and all you really have to notice about this scene is that they are styled to look eerily identical, for reasons that are either really important or not important at all:

Am I selling this show? Is it enough to just say there was never anything else like it, that the show’s anti-narrative anti-gravity makes much better TV dramas look a bit too grounded by comparison? John From Cincinnati rides a singular wave between camp and profundity, between navel-imploding indulgence and brainbending genius; if The Sopranos was the Godfather of TV in the ’00s, then John From Cincinnati was the El Topo. (Imagine a Roger Corman movie written by Harold Pinter.) It’s a part of TV history. It’s available on DVD – cheap!

But the future isn’t in DVDs. The future is online; the future is in the zeroes and ones; the future is in the Word, and the Word is in Cass’s camera. Don’t know what that means? Me neither, and I’ve watched the damn show! Clearly we need to figure this out together.

3 thoughts on “John From Cincinnati

  1. I not only remember it, but surprised that it ended and kept hoping it would return…both concept/writing were so unique.

  2. I’m just curious about what you loved about El Topo? I never figured out what was going on with that one.

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