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TELEVISION REVIEW

Surfing for the right wavelength

David Milch's new HBO series, `John From Cincinnati,' is both profound and muddled.

June 08, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

David Milch is the last guy I'd figure to bring back "Touched by an Angel," but I was well into Episode 2 of his new HBO series "John From Cincinnati" and running out of options.

What is this? The network is introducing the show Sunday night, after the finale of "The Sopranos." To start a series featuring a frothing, discursive, junkie surfer five seconds after the most important series in HBO's history ends is an understandable programming decision but also a kind of madness. "John From Cincinnati" isn't a dish of sherbet, like "Entourage"; it's a heaping plate of I-don't-know-what exactly -- cranky and confusing, profound and profane.

What, "Big Love" wasn't available?

Like "Sopranos" creator David Chase, the intense Milch isn't exactly a sunny-side-up guy; his big, personal theme is addiction, which he's used throughout his brilliant TV career, most notably to infuse the detective character Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) on "NYPD Blue" and the pimp/saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) on his masterwork western, HBO's "Deadwood."

At its height, his dialogue is mean, ornate, ironic and guttural, when it isn't waxing toward the transcendental. All of which Milch applies -- gamely if not always seamlessly -- to his new world, that of surfers.

In a sense, Milch has traded the lawless Old West of "Deadwood" for an equally rich frontier -- the surfing outpost of Imperial Beach, south of San Diego, opposite the Mexican border.

It's terrain that has been explored in the work of "surf noir" novelist Kem Nunn, a co-creator and executive producer of "John From Cincinnati." Nunn's most recent novel, "Tijuana Straits," begins with an aging surfer scoring some crystal meth in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven before discovering a mysterious woman who's come ashore from over the border in Mexico.

"Tijuana Straits" comes at you with the bigger socio-geographical themes of T.C. Boyle's great novel "The Tortilla Curtain." Based on the three hourlong episodes HBO sent out for review, "John From Cincinnati" doesn't, offering only meager hints.

It too begins with an aging surfer, Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), though he's actually surfing, and the spectral presence who enters his life is not a bedraggled Mexican woman but a Morrissey look-alike in a tan jacket and polka-dot Vans.

He says his name is John and will agree, when prompted, that he's from Cincinnati. It's intentionally ambiguous whether John (Austin Nichols) is an alien, a prophet or just a brilliant, mocking mimic learning how to use the bathroom by watching others and doing as they do.

"The end is near," is something he says. Also: "Mitch Yost should get back in the game."

Yost is the paterfamilias of a dynasty of surfing males. Mitch is the 1970s icon whose career was ended by a catastrophic knee injury; son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) "changed surfing," we're told, before his career went the way of his heroin habit.

The latest Yost prodigy is Butchie's 13-year-old son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), a sweet Generation X-Games natural in the care of his grandpa Mitch and grandma Cissy. She, by the way, is played by the still-iconic Rebecca De Mornay, seen here as a long-suffering surfer wife, her face lock-jawed in recrimination.

As "Deadwood" blew up conventional associations with the western, "John From Cincinnati" is a bracing corrective to the easy myths about surf culture. It seems partly the point here that the surfing scenes, though presented as magical, aren't hyper-glorified. Surfers, after all, have gotten leeway in the culture as untouchables -- daredevil nirvana-seekers (see the breathtaking documentary "Riding Giants").

But all that tends to overlook how this same singularity of purpose can play out among loved ones on dry land. Greenwood, particularly, gets at this dichotomy in his performance; Mitch is the show's biggest legend and, perhaps not coincidentally, the show's biggest jerk.

The show opens on him as he surfs in the early morning hours; waiting for him on the beach is Linc (Luke Perry), an old surf-promoter nemesis who wants to sponsor Shaun, and a new guy, our John from Cincinnati.

"Couple of fun ones, eh Mitch?" Linc calls out.

"You should get back in the game, Mitch Yost," John blurts.

"You should mind your own business," Mitch grumbles back.

He answers Linc with an expletive.

And we're off.

The opening sequence ends with Mitch washing himself off, only to realize that he's floating, having risen some inches above the ground. Is it surfer's ear, a symptom of a more horrible ailment, or is he in the presence of God?

Though it eventually catches a tail wind, "John From Cincinnati" is, in the early going, morose and claustrophobic. This is the project that HBO reportedly urged Milch to put on the front burner instead of a fourth season of the baroque and expensive set piece "Deadwood." Though not (quite) as profane as "Deadwood," Milch's new show talks like his previous one, the monologues serpentine in their sentence structure.

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