Television

John from Cincinnati

Jesse Hicks

John Monad looks to be John the Baptist by way of Rain Man, with supernatural gifts and virtually unlimited credit.

John from Cincinnati

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Rebecca De Mornay, Brian Van Holt, Austin Nichols
Subtitle: First Episode
Network: HBO
US release date: 2007-06-10
Website
Trailer
Amazon
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 He'd turned away from the world, withdrawn to his dim room to shoot his pain away.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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.