John from Cincinnati

The Kahuna has spoken.

— Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay)

In her famous 1965 essay, “Notes from a Native Daughter,” Joan Didion limned the peculiarity of Californian character. According to her, a primal anxiety haunts the state: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” This uneasy suspension manifests as a sense of always-impending apocalypse; it’s no wonder the Golden State has spawned a number of doomsday cults and alternative-spirituality groups.

It’s fitting, then, that David Milch sets his new series there — John from Cincinnati is steeped in California’s unique style of existential dread. The premier opened ominously, on the hazy, pre-dawn Imperial Beach as the titular character, John Monad (Austin Nichols), intoned, “The end is near.” The end of what, and for whom, remained an open question: the first episode offers more portents than specifics. Clearly, though, Imperial Beach, a sere border town characterized by mediocre waves and polluted shores, is a place of wary, broken dreamers.

In the first episode, we met the Yosts, three generations of surfer demi-gods. Patriarch Mitch (Bruce Greenwood), despite blowing out his knee in the 1970s, still inspires hero worship from local aficionados such as Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson). Founder of the Association of Surfing Attorneys, Meyer plays guardian angel to Mitch’s son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), who inherited his father’s talent for virtually walking on water. But Butchie’s surfing prize money went straight into drugs. When Butchie’s son Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) visited the dim, ramshackle hotel room his father calls home, Butchie greeted him, “What’s going on? How was sixth grade?” He’d turned away from the world, withdrawn to his dim room to shoot his pain away.

The eldest Yost too has rejected the world. Mitch surfed alone in the pre-dawn hours, then locked himself in a clubhouse. His wife Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay) mocked his “Grand Pooh-Bah’s Inner Sanctum,” deriding him as “The Holy Father. Great Dao. Fuckin’ Dahli Lama.” Cissy’s invocation of religious figures emphasized a central tension of John from Cincinnati, the eons-old clash between spiritual faith and apprehensible reality. Cissy associates religiosity with monastic self-denial. Mitch embodies this reductive view. His interactions with his family consist mainly of banning Shaun from participating in the sport that, he believes, ruined the Yosts. Conversely, the art of surfing takes on a spiritual sheen. That Mitch and Butchie no longer make it central part of their lives sets them up as wayward acolytes in need of redemption.

And so it arrived, in typically atypical California fashion, appearing seemingly from nowhere. Named John Monad (Austin Nichols), he looks to be John the Baptist by way of Rain Man, with supernatural gifts and virtually unlimited credit. Using the former, he seemingly levitated Mitch and returned a dead bird to life; with the latter he installed himself as a surf tourist eager to learn from Butchie. “Mitch Yost needs to get back in the game,” he said, solemnly. Thus he became part of the Yost family, about whom he knows more than he’s telling. Or, as he so cryptically put it, “Some things I know and some things I don’t.”

Alessandra Stanley notes John’s similarity to Chauncey Gardiner, the simple-minded protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There. Back in 1979, Chauncey’s credulous acquaintances mistook his simplicity for insight. John’s new friends are more cynical, never imagining his pseudo-profundity is the real thing. Picked up north of Tijuana, John encountered Vietnam Joe (Jim Beaver), who chided him, “Spare me the babe in the woods routine. You just paid to watch a donkey fuck a woman.” The inhabitants of Imperial Beach have had their capacity for belief bleached away by the California sun.

As writer Steve Hawk comments on the HBO message board, today’s jaded Californians “choose to view what others might consider miraculous events through the prisms of their personal pathologies.” Never the optimist, Mitch explained his apparent levitation as side effect of brain cancer. Retired police detective Bill (Ed O’Neill) saw in his parrot’s resurrection the specter of his own impending senility.

Imperial Beach, a Deadwood by the sea, is austere and scorched. It’s hard to believe faith could blossom among its residents. But at the end of John from Cincinnati‘s first episode, questions of faith and doubt remained in uneasy suspension, and the apocalypse — whether personal or global — seemed just around the corner.

RATING 7 / 10