“John From Cincinnati” might be the strangest show ever produced for American television — an HBO drama that makes “Twin Peaks” look like “Mayberry RFD.” Yet even worshippers at the altar of writer extraordinaire David Milch are likely to find themselves bewildered and frustrated with the premiere, and two subsequent episodes only marginally improve matters. It’s easy to admire the hypnotic poetry in Milch’s dialogue, but this existential surfing fantasy — infused with a touch of “Starman” — dips and swerves amid its confounding currents, and hardly appears like the standard-bearer to help lead the pay service into a post-“Sopranos” future.
Indeed, fans of Milch’s “Deadwood” (notably, a few members of that show’s cast show up here) might wonder what possessed HBO to inadvertently hasten the foul-mouthed Western’s demise to liberate the producer to pursue this perplexing, messy bit of whimsy inspired by surf novelist (and series co-creator) Kem Nunn.
Built around three generations of surfers, the show’s patriarch is Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), a wave-conquering legend whose son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), was equally promising before the high life got the best of him and he became a junkie. Mitch and his wife Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay) thus care for their grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), another surfing prodigy who Mitch desperately wants to protect from Butchie’s fame-driven fall and the leeches (including a surf promoter played by Luke Perry) that would latch onto him.
Into this fractured family drama descends John (Austin Nichols), a messianic figure who mostly seems to parrot what others say to him. Once John arrives, strange things start occurring — from Butchie feeling no dope sickness to Mitch inexplicably levitating a few inches off the ground.
“Some things I know, and some things I don’t,” John repeats with childlike simplicity. Butchie guesses he’s from Cincinnati — hence the title — whereas the audience is left to ponder whether the fresh-faced lad comes from outer space, Heaven or somewhere else equally exotic.
If the show quit there, it would be maddening enough, but Milch tosses in family friend Bill (Ed O’Neill) and a peculiar, suicidal lottery winner (Matt Winston) that won’t earn any prizes from GLAAD, along with other quirky characters whose larger contribution remains fuzzy at best. For his part, John seemingly wants Mitch to surf again (“get back in the game,” as he puts it), but where the narrative flows is anybody’s guess, and after three hallucinatory hours, I’m not really sure I care.
Part of that is because the characters prove almost uniformly unpleasant beyond the serene John, barking and squabbling in obscenity-laced exchanges that awkwardly wed “NYPD Blue’s” terse cop-talk with “Deadwood’s” frontier barbarism. Mitch and Cissy — while well-played by Greenwood and De Mornay — are particularly poor company, even with their understandable anger at Butchie and the world at large.
In a sense, “John From Cincinnati” represents the ultimate leap of creative faith — with HBO having banked on Milch and Nunn to locate a TV series at the heart of this acid flashback. Perhaps they eventually will, but unless the audience is surprisingly tolerant and forgiving, by the time that ship comes in, most of those who tested the waters will have drifted away.