Mysterious surfer drama to take ‘Sopranos’ spot

[8 June 2007]

By Gail Shister

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

John From Cincinnati

John From Cincinnati

If you expect David Milch to concisely explain the premise of his inscrutable new HBO drama, we have three words for you:

Not gonna happen.

Maestro Milch, who could discourse metaphysically about cardboard, takes offense at the notion that John From Cincinnati can be summarized in one neat, TV-grid-friendly sentence.

HBO can’t do it, either, apparently. John’s marketing campaign is as enigmatic as the “surf noir” series itself, which hits the beach at 10 p.m. EDT Sunday.

“This show cannot be sold in a sound-bite,” sniffs Milch, 62, creator of HBO’s Deadwood and co-creator of NYPD Blue.

“The absence of an identifiable convention is what makes the show hard to explain. You can’t say it’s a mystery or a Western or an anti-Western or a comedy or a tragedy. ... You can’t necessarily put a name on every experience in order to sell it.”

That means viewers will have to decipher Milch’s meaning for themselves. But HBO is so high on his outlandish new series that it’s launching John in the primo slot following the series finale of The Sopranos. The remaining nine episodes run at 9 p.m. EDT.

In broad strokes, John follows the Yosts of Imperial Beach, Calif., a dysfunctional family of legendary surfers that includes withdrawn patriarch Mitch (Bruce Greenwood), his junkie son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), and 13-year-old grandson, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), a champion in the making.

When a curiously disengaged stranger named John (Austin Nichols) shows up, weird things start happening in Yost-world. Other regulars include Luke Perry, Rebecca De Mornay and Ed O’Neill. Noted surf novelist Kem Nunn (“Tijuana Straits”) is cocreator.

The first words spoken in the series are John’s: “The end is near.” Conversation-wise, it’s downhill from there.

“The world he comes into is a very, very sick family,” says Milch. “You could say that it’s the family of man, or Western culture, where purists justify their purity by abstaining from society, and where addiction is rampant.”

When pressed, Milch says the overall theme of the piece is “the elusiveness of meaning, absent a humane commitment to the experience.”

Even Hemingway couldn’t reduce that to a snappy logline.

“If that’s your racket, figure it out,” Milch snaps. “I don’t give a (expletive.) It’s not my job. My job is to write the show.

“It doesn’t mean I’m being willful as an artist. I just won’t spoon-feed the audience what `John’ means and thereby prevent them from experiencing the heart of the show.”

Milch’s original script had “John” set in New York. HBO “asked me to reimagine it” in California. Reimagining is nothing new for Milch. He first envisioned “Deadwood” taking place in Rome during Nero’s reign. It became a Western set in the lawless Dakota hills in 1876.

Fact is, Milch, a recovered compulsive gambler, thrives on beating the odds.

For most of his career - he began as a writer for NBC’s classic “Hill Street Blues” in the early `80s - he’s gravitated to shows that most experts predicted would tank.

Some did, of course (Remember “Brooklyn South”?), but when they hit, they hit big. “NYPD Blue,” for example, ran from 1993 to 2005 on ABC.

“My whole life, I’ve watched the smart money opine, then go out and fix the holes in its shoes. I’ve watched the smart money miss the bus every damn time.

“When we did `‘PD Blue,’ everyone knew the hour (drama) was dead. People’s attention spans were too short. `Hill Street’ was the lowest-rated show in TV history ever to be picked up.

“The future is a great reinterpreter of the past. How (“John”) is received will ultimately depend on the show itself. If people don’t come to this show immediately, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad show.”

“Deadwood” (`04 to `06) was an uphill climb, too. Laced with foul language and explicit sex, it eventually found a small, but rabid, audience and critical acclaim.

HBO didn’t order a fourth season, so Milch committed to writing two “Deadwood” TV movies to tie up storylines as soon as “John” wraps in early July. Don’t bet on it. Sounds like he’s wavering - “We will see, when the time comes.”

Timing has never been a Milch strong suit. He’s notorious for working episode to episode, eschewing season-long outlines. Sometimes, actors are handed scripts just minutes before cameras roll.

Naturally, Milch sees his style in metaphysical terms.

“It’s easy to caricature it as mystical or an acid trip, but the truth is, most orthodox religions’ points of view suggest that you ask to be of service to a power you don’t understand.

“As an artist, I try not to impose my will on the material. I try to be a vessel for the material, a faithful steward. I try to pray my way into characters and let them guide me.”

Even when they’re toting surfboards.

John from Cincinnati promo

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