Moriarty’s One Thing I Love Today! HBO’s JOHN FROM CINCINNATI!
Published at: March 26, 2008, 6:46 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
David Milch should get back in the game.
I loved DEADWOOD. Absolutely adored every cocksucking second of it. I loved the characters, the tone, the look, the direction, the sense of time and place. And when HBO and/or David Milch pulled the plug (I’ve read differing accounts of what went down) a year before the story should have ended, it felt like a betrayal, and as a result, I refused to tune in to Milch’s follow-up series, JOHN OF CINCINNATI. I didn’t read about it. I didn’t watch it. I ignored it completely out of spite.
And now that it’s wrapped up, never to return, I’m cursing myself for being such a knee-jerk reactionary, because it turns out I missed a really strange and beautiful season of television, one of the more adventurous series to appear on HBO in recent memory. In some ways, it plays as a reaction to DEADWOOD, a sort of inverted reinvention of some of the same types of dynamics, a way for Milch to play out some of the same impulses, but it’s also much more experimental that DEADWOOD ever was.
The good news is that you can watch this box set and see that, although it definitely suggests ongoing relationships that might occur after these events, there is a complete story told, and in a way, I don’t want any more answers than we’re offered here. More answers might diffuse some of what I think works so well, and in this case, I think maybe that sense of wondering what comes next is sort of the point of the thing.
I don’t think Milch is particularly subtle about what he’s doing in the show. The question is what he hopes to say with it. This is a Jesus story, the coming of a powerful force of paradigm change in human behavior in the form of an innocent stranger with supernatural powers who stumbles into the lives of the Yost family in Imperial Beach, California.
DEADWOOD was a deeply pessimistic show regarding human behavior, and it feels to me like JOHN FROM CINCINNATI is about Milch personally changing, shifting his belief in people into something positive. I may not like the Paul Haggis film CRASH, but it’s not because I dislike the notion of optimism in cinema. It’s because I didn’t think Haggis earned his giant coincidental moments in his film. The thing moves so fast that it’s all set-up/pay-off with no time to breathe. JOHN FROM CINCINNATI tells its story over the course of ten hours, and because it gets to linger over details and allow you to learn about these people through behavior over time, these nine days in the lives of the Yosts feel like time genuinely spent instead of just a contrived dramatic exercise.
It’s a great cast. Rebecca De Mornay is a ball-buster of near-Godzilla magnitude as Cissy Yost, but it’s all just part of her mama lion heart that keeps her constantly fighting for her grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) or her son Butchie (Brian Van Holt). Bruce Greenwood is awesome as Mitch Yost, Cissy’s husband, head of the Yost family. He’s a former surfing star who blew out his knee, forcing him to turn inward to prayer and meditation to survive. He and Cissy are a disaster at this point in their marriage, thanks in no small part to their absolute failure with Butchie, who was a rising surf star in his own right until he signed an endorsement deal and turned into a drug-addicted piece of shit. He fathered a baby that he abandoned on Mitch and Cissy’s doorstep, and they have raised Shaun themselves. Now, at 13, he’s poised to be a surf star as well, the third generation of natural ability, and he might even be the best of them all. It’s just that Mitch doesn’t want to let it happen because he’s afraid, and Butchie’s in no condition to be a good father, and Shaun doesn’t know who to turn to. There are all sorts of people in his life, influencing him, like Kai (Keala Kennelly), who works in the family surf shop, or Bill Jacks (Ed O’Neill), a retired cop who lets Shaun come over to help with all his birds, or even Linc Stark (Luke Perry), the promoter who destroyed Butchie in the first place.
John (Austin Nichols) shows up in the midst of all this, mysterious and simple to the point of stupid. He speaks in short cryptic bursts. “Mitch Yost should get back in the game.” His arrival is played as surrealist comedy for the most part, until...
Well, let’s not be coy. This is a show about miracles. Real miracles. This is not a show where it wants to make things ambiguous so you can argue about the nature of miracles or the idea of accidents that we misinterpret. This is a show about miracles. About the arrival of a divine being, someone with a pipeline to a higher plane of existence. And what Milch was so smart about was in giving this being this name, and in refusing to make this a direct hamhanded parallel, he’s made this a universal story. This is a Jesus story, as I said. It’s also a Buddha story. A story of gods and aliens and ghosts and the beyond. It’s a story about something larger than us taking enough of an interest in us to help... just when we need it.
Why the Yosts? Why does this being decide to start its return with them? That’s what the show asks, and in my mind, it answers the question pretty emphatically by the end of the series. The way these people are all interconnected, the way they depend on each other for survival, and the way more and more people become involved like Meyer Dickstein (the great Willie Garson) or Ramon (the also-great Luis Guzman) and the doc (the also-also-great Garret Dillahunt) or Steady Freddie Lopez (Dayton Callie) and Vietnam Joe (Jim Beaver) and Palaka (Paul Ben-Victor), or Shaun’s long-lost porn star mom, Tina Blake (Chandra West) or Cass (Emily Rose), who becomes John’s documentarian sort of by default. These are the disciples, the witnesses, the ones who are first to recognize the magic of what’s happening to this family. This is the community that John builds. This is the birth of his first church, and that’s such a strange and wonderful thing to write that I’m surprised this got greenlit at all.
Beautifully written, with strong performances, and stylistically quite striking, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I found myself watching it all at once, over the course of two and a half days, and it felt to me like HBO has reached the part of its life cycle where it can finally support something akin to indie cinema, where they allow some experimentation from people who have delivered them hits in the past. I’d love to see David Chase go out on a limb this far when he finally decides to do another series. Or if he ever does. I think this is one of those beautiful accidents, something that snuck by, so good it was never meant to last.