[9 August 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
HBO’s “John From Cincinnati” ends its first, and possibly last, season on Sunday night, and the only thing that’s clear is that David Milch is a loyal guy.
Milch writes “John” and he created the profane and dazzling “Deadwood,” and so far, I’ve counted about a half-dozen cast members from “Deadwood” in the new show, plus it’s got Ed O’Neill, who starred in another Milch creation, “Big Apple.” Milch takes care of his people.
That’s about it. Here’s a very short list of what I don’t know:
Whether “John From Cincinnati” will get renewed by HBO; if the “Deadwood” movies will ever get made; what on Earth is happening in this show.
I can’t even tell you if I like the series. I watch it every week for the language, for the occasional great scene, the small funny moments, and in the vain hope that I might figure out what’s going on. But mostly I watch it because David Milch is all over this thing and I don’t want to miss what he might do.
“John” comes from deep inside Milch’s fertile, imaginative, dark and extraordinarily convoluted psyche, and you venture into that territory at your own peril, as Milch would be the first to tell you.
But the lure is, if you can hang on - and I’m not saying that’s easy - you get a chaotic, bracing ride through the world as Milch sees it. So, that’s something else we can be pretty sure about. Living inside Milch’s brain - high functioning though it may be - is no picnic.
Milch is one of the very special writers who found his way to Hollywood. He was a writing prodigy, a self-destructive addict and the forceful voice behind the creation of “NYPD Blue” before “Deadwood.” Any conversation with him can wander through the reaches of literature, theology, physics, psychology, and maybe horse racing, before landing squarely on the point he was making.
His writing is always unconventional and he uses quirky rhythms, juxtaposed dialogue and meandering themes that usually produce rich, literate stories. Sometimes, Milch also produces puzzles, and that would be the definition of “John From Cincinnati.”
A linear description of the series - and describing it in linear terms is like copying the colors of a van Gogh with a pencil - is this: A strange young guy, John, appears in the lives of the Yost family, three generations of surfers who’ve become alienated from each other and from surfing because of injury, addiction and the weight of life.
John (Austin Nichols) is clearly not from Cincinnati. He may not be from this planet. Possibly he’s an alien, possibly he’s an emissary of God. “Hear my father’s word,” John says at one crucial point.
It’s no use trying to describe the plot so far. If you haven’t been watching, there’s no catching up. If you have been watching, you can’t describe it either.
One of the points seems to be that this series, like life, is, of course, not linear. It’s frustrating, disappointing, surprising and a giant mess. Everyone and everything is tangled together in nonsensical, toweringly vague and opaque ways, and, like surfers, all anyone can do is ride it out, grabbing the best parts when you can. Maybe. I’m guessing here.
One of the recommendations for this series are the puzzles in everything - its construction, language and meaning. They draw you back for odd reasons. It is also, at times, a visual treat, particularly when the camera is around the beach and the water.
The final scene last week was quiet and powerful as Butchie (Brian Van Holt), the middle Yost, has finally gotten back to surfing and he sits on his board in the twilight, waiting for a wave. Beyond him, the ocean has gone calm and flat, and Butchie just waits.
Maybe that’s a metaphor for life. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the series, because we sure enough have been waiting for a payoff. Maybe it’s nothing but a beautiful scene.
That, I suppose, is the best way to watch the finale on Sunday, with vigilant patience, just in case “John From Cincinnati” brings in a sudden big break.
Way, way on the other end of the complexity scale is Sci Fi’s remake of “Flash Gordon,” starting Friday night with a 90-minute premiere. There were so many ways to make this good, and they missed them all.
The look is cheap, the writing is bland, the action sequences are lame - loud music and all - and the conspiracies and themes are weakly derivative, and not from the classic “Flash Gordon,” but from everything you’ve ever seen, including “The X Files” standard “Trust no one.” Seriously, someone said “trust no one.” I thought his next line would be, “The truth is out there.”
A little flair or pathos or some sharper writing and acting might have saved this. What it really could use is a dash of ironic humor, or even some old-fashioned camp.
Instead, the whole thing settled for simple and lackluster. Sci Fi does much better with its Saturday night movies, because those are cheesy on purpose.