David Milch's enigmatic and philosophically/theologically elusive (not to mention extremely mind-bending and short lived) follow-up to "Deadwood" remains one of the most misunderstood television experiences of the last ten years. "John from Cincinnati" is a show full of ideas, and in typical Milch form the fact that those ideas are never quite fully fleshed out or explored are beside the point…this is a show that is meant to be experienced, contemplated, and pondered for days after watching it. Sure the religious allegories and deep, twisting metaphors for the soul and life may seem like the least inviting way to spend an evening in front of the television; however, it never seems that Milch – who is a brilliant man almost to a fault – is interested in whether or not we "get" what we're watching (or more to a point that we're "entertained" by it), but is more concerned with our cognitive experience while watching it. Milch is interested in stretching our brains with a show that seems like the most basic of premises, but beneath its salt water surface are deeply profound themes about what we believe, how we came to believe it, and who told us to believe it. To some that may seem extremely frustrating, but for me it's liberating. Here's a show that allows you to soak up the symbolism and questions, allowing them to marinate in your mind for days, like its surfers soak up the rays and waves.
I'll spare you the episode-by-episode synopsis. If you're interested in that just check this out. What I want to explore are some of the shows deep themes, what Milch may be asking us, and why it amazes me that a show like this made it past episode one. Here's a quick and dirty rundown of main characters, the actors that portray them, and general idea of what the show is about (for the uninitiated):
The show takes place in Imperial Beach – a coastal town tucked in the corner of the western states and a stone's throw away from Tijuana – a surfing community where our main characters, the Yost family, own a surf shop. Mitch and Cissy (Bruce Greenwood and Rebecca DeMornay) have a son "Butchie" (Brian Van Holt) who was once a great surfer before he became a victim of drug abuse. Mitch was also a renown surfer in the 70's before a career ending knee injury made him an afterthought. Butchie has a son named Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) who is raised by Cissy and Mitch…Shaun is a surfing and askating prodigy and is highly sought after by a promoter/agent named Link Stark (Luke Perry). Link has a connection with the Yost family as it was his vision and promotion that caused Butchie to become an addict. Mitch is opposed to Shaun "selling out" out of fear that he'll end up like his father; however, Sissy is more than interested in letting Shaun do what he wants to do, which is competitively surf.
A stranger enters the community named John (Austin Nichols), and Butchie immediately takes a liking to him as he initially mistakes him for a drug runner who owes him money, but as Butchie and everyone else living in Imperial Beach realize…there's something strange about this John character, and it isn't long before weird things begin to occur as John becomes a part of these people's lives. Other important characters include Bill (Ed O'Neil), a retired and obsessive police officer who helped raise Shaun after he busted Butchie for drugs; Kai (Keala Kennelly), an employee of Cissy and Mitch's surf shop who knows Shaun and was once friends with Butchie; Freddie (Dayton Callie), a Hawaiian drug lord who has connections with Butchie; Barry buys up the dilapidated motel where Butchie stays, he knew Butchie in grade school and has recently won the lottery…a blow to the head as a young man causes him to have epileptic seizures and have visions of ghosts at the motel; Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson) plays a lawyer in charge of the sale of the motel, he's also a huge surf fan and admired Butchie before he become an addict; Dr. Michael Smith (Garret Dillahunt) plays the neurologist who treated Shaun after a surfing accident and who begins to question everything he knew after witnessing a miracle; Cass (Emily Rose) a filmmaker formerly employed by Linc Stark who was initially assigned to seduce Mitch and break up Mitch and Cissy's.
Whew. Okay, so there's your principal characters (there will be more that I'll introduce later), but let's get to what's more interesting about this show: even though it is as entertaining an hour your likely to spend watching a show about surfers, "John from Cincinnati" really just uses its rather generic plot and setting as a vessel for Milch's fantastical philosophies.
The first disc covers John's first two days in Imperial Beach. In these two days Mitch levitates, Butchie no longer feels "dope sick", Shaun breaks his neck and is presumed dead…only to regain consciousness after Bill's parakeet kisses him, Mitch levitates some more, John gives Kai an orgasmic and telepathic vision where she sees what all of her friends are doing at that very moment, and Bill's aforementioned parakeet is brought back to life after Shaun touches it. Yeah, it's that kind of show. Some may be rolling their eyes and others may be intrigued; and others may be thinking: 'well it's the guy that did "Deadwood"…it can't be that silly or that bad'. If you haven't seen the show yet my hope is that the themes that I'll be discussing here and (hopefully) in the comments will compel you to pick it up for cheap on Amazon (it's only $9.99) or off of Netflix.
Here are some of the main themes that are introduced within the first three episodes. My thoughts follow and I hope we'll continue this discussion in further posts and comments. I'm going to just do the following outline and thoughts on the theme in lieu of a "traditional" review. Like I said…if you want a more traditional television recap you check out the link above or click here for the consummate pro of television recapping and his take on the show. Onto the themes:
"I try to cast as many people who are as identifiable from a single role as a way of mobilizing the viewer's sense of impossible arbitrariness of how we remember things. Oh, you know 'that's Rebecca DeMornay, she gave Tom Cruise a handjob…or whatever it was'…the difficulty that we have individuating our experience in the present moment as opposed to interpreting it through…in terms of arbitrary associations with the past."
The above quote is from the commentary track by Milch on the first episode. Two minutes in and Milch has already blew my brain into a million pieces. He talks about the arbitrariness of casting specific actors; for example when people see Luke Perry they don't think about Link, the character he plays, they think about the fact that he's the guy from "Beverly Hills, 901210"; when people see Rebecca DeMornay they think "oh, there's the girl who gave Tom Cruise a handjob." All of this speaks to the bigger theme of "John from Cincinnati", this arbitrariness of symbols and such. It's something that is compounded upon with each subsequent episode, and it's one of the most fascinating things that seems to swimming around Milch's head. Now…I don't know if I even caught a whiff of that that upon second viewing, but I feel okay in my stupidity here because here's a show that Milch himself admitted we weren't necessarily supposed to "get".
Edges and Borders/Fringe Characters and Outsiders in the Community:
The characters are often filmed close up, to the left of the frame; or there are usually characters crowding the frame to suggest that there's always a lot being seen, but never anything being said. Milch "pushes" thing to the edge – even his setting here, Imperial Beach, is literally on the edge of the coast – to suggest that these characters are not normal, not people we would encounter in normal communities. Like "Deadwood" Milch creates a community of characters that seem otherworldly in the sense that these are people who can only function within their very specific community. One man can easily convince them to do whatever they want to because this is a community that doesn't ask questions, but just accepts things for the way they are (again, the parallels to "Deadwood" seem clear enough). This also ties in with biblical metaphor of the show: Jesus (John) and his disciples were radicals, seen as outsiders who threatened the very traditions that the Pharisees tried to hold over everyone else as Law in the Jewish community. Also edges and borders suggest fringe characters, outsiders…or a rather apt symbol would be an alien. John, at times, seems more like Starman than Jesus, a character clearly from another place (perhaps world) that is called a "shapeshifter" by Freddie. John apes everything the characters do, and rarely does he have something to say that he hasn't heard another character say.
Ah...the biggest and most obvious one. The signs are clearly there (and rather overt) for a religious interpretation of Milch's show. In fact I would bet he insists on it. His characters surf (which often bears the appearance of walking on water); Mitch levitates after meeting the mysterious John; John is from Cincinnati so the initials match up (or as I like to say, in Milch speak his initials add up to J.F.C., or "Jesus Fucking Christ"), not to mention John's last name is Monad (Monism anyone?); John seems to have the power to heal and "resurrect" characters; John is constantly being led by the hand, or he if he isn't be led by the hand he's offering his hand...a strong Christian symbol; characters "see God" which momentarily gives them psychic powers; and finally you could make a case that there are 12 main characters and John is at the center of all of them, (re)connecting (this point becomes pretty in obvious in the series' shining moment which happens later in the series) them and in some cases mending broken souls.
You could also look at it through a different lens if you don't want to think of John as a Jesus figure since one of his first lines of the show is, "the end is near", you could interpret his character as a herald...a John the Baptist type prophesier. His characters are also privy to a bevy of miracles in the first three episodes: Shaun resurrects Bill's parakeet, the parakeet resurrects Shaun, John's "magic pockets", Butchie doesn't feel dope sick, and Kai's out-of-body experience. However, all of these characters seem to be initially surprised, but ultimately dismissive (except for Bill) of these miracles. Again once can make a connection to the parallels in the bible and the miracle stories found in the Gospels, and how they were perceived by those in the Jewish community (both with awe and disbelief...and sometimes with an aloofness). The (lack of) response to these miracles -- ranging from small (John's pockets) to large (Shaun's resurrection) -- is one of the more overt and interesting unifying themes of the first three episodes.
Central to the theme, too (and this is true of any Milch endeavor), is the idea that these character are constantly asking themselves how to live. These characters are also as stupid as it gets. In a lecture he gave to a USC classroom Milch states that his idea was to dump someone like John into the world in order to change it…so where did he need to place him to affect the most change: "with the stupidest fucking people in America…the surfers!" This is relevant here because Jesus was sent to affect change, too, and the people he came in contact with (the disciples mostly) were somewhat bumbling in the way they tried to understand what was happening. On the night before his capture Jesus asks a few of his disciples to stay awake with him and pray, and twice they fall asleep unable to stay up with their master. In the gospels you have a group of people who rarely ask the right questions, and when they aren't asking questions they simply just accept the way things are. This isn't just Milch giving Christianity the business…it's all religion, whether that religion is God or television…we've become a society of surfers in Milch's mind. Now the religion metaphor also evolves into a much richer and murkier one as the show progresses. We'll get into that later, but it's definitely there, and there's a quote from the aforementioned lecture that I'll post on here for the final disc review where Milch tries to explain what the show was all about (and what I hint at in the opening paragraph).
Classic storytelling tropes:
On a different, stylistic note Milch's tendency to rely on classical storytelling tropes is also in need of mention. Milch is a genius, I don't think there's denying that, and as is the case with most people who think and create on a whole different level than the rest of us there is almost always certainly some eccentricity sprinkled in with brilliance. Never has Milch's eccentric ways been more apparent than with "John from Cincinnati". Here's a show that essentially has a Greek chorus (Barry, Dickstein, and Ramon – played by the always great Luis Guzman – often stand outside the motel and narrate the action, filling in the contextual blanks for the audience…proving that Milch isn't interested in banal expository practices.). The characters can also be frequently seen speaking in soliloquy. Bill often fills in the blanks about the Yost family while he stands in his house and talks to his parakeet. This gives the show that odd charm that Milch was no doubt going for, but it also helps in making the necessary background information somewhat interesting as well as clarifying information for the audience about the community of Imperial Beach that we haven't been privy to. In "Deadwood" he did the same thing with Swearengen talking to himself – in a sense explaining the action by thinking out loud – from his balcony, and here he not only uses Bill's character, but Freddie (the drug dealer from Hawaii) too as he is constantly talking to himself, and in one scene (episode 3) – while sitting in his car outside of the hospital listening to the Phantom of the Opera on CD, visibly upset that it's not the "right" version, in a hilarious moment of juxtaposition – he is describing the crucial action at the hospital and the interaction of certain characters...again he's acting as a Greek chorus because we can't hear what he characters are saying, but we have Freddie there to speculate with us.
The show kind of wanders from character to character in the first few episodes. Milch is clearly interested in leaving us in the dark, and I think the effect he is going for here is to try and get us to think of the show in different terms than something we would normally watch. We've been trained to watch a show and understand all of the characters and their back story and how they relate to each other within the first handful of episodes. Even if a show doesn't explicitly lay it all out there for us at least the seeds have been sown. Not so with "John from Cincinnati". This is a show that isn't interested in any of the standard storytelling devices. Milch, it seems, almost has no regard for basic character development; rather, we're thrown into this grungy world to fend for ourselves…in fact I'd say it's safe to say that the only character we're supposed to understand is John…because we're just as much as an alien in regards to trying to figure out what this show is all about.
Meandering and eccentricities aside, the show is fascinating in its opening episodes as it's clear that Milch wants to focus more of his time on odd goings-on and deeper questions that haven't quite been fleshed out yet in the first three episodes. One thing is for sure: I'm really looking forward to re-watching the rest of this series. It's one of the deepest and most peculiar seasons of television I've ever seen. Somehow it seems appropriate that such an esoteric and ambiguous show, with its odd mixing of the sacred and the profane, didn't last past 10 episodes, because any attempt to answer these deep questions Milch broaches would have fallen flat; they would have made the show seem too…ordinary.