The dramatic triplet of surfing, drug addiction and metaphysical levitation are not, of themselves, the stuff of great television, but in the hands of David Milch, widely considered the greatest living television writer, the three may have struck a chord.
HBO’s new series, John From Cincinnati, executive produced by Milch, premieres this Sunday night at ten immediately following the final episode of The Sopranos, amid hopes that the show can take over for that longstanding network staple.
Milch, who created the hit HBO series “Deadwood”, as well as the long-running shows “NYPD Blue” and “Hill Street Blues” has succeeded in creating a film treatment of surfing without the glossy sheen that has doomed other attempts.
John centers itself on the dysfunctional Yost family, which contains three generations of surfers—each among the greatest of his time. The patriarch is the embittered Mitch Yost, whose once-great surfing career was hobbled by a knee injury and whose son, Butchie Yost, was the greatest surfer of his time until a bad boy image crafted by surf clothing company Stinkweed eventually led him to heroin addiction, which is why Mitch, who is now the legal guardian of Butchie’s son Shaun, will not allow Stinkweed to sign his grandson, fearing that the savagery of the surf industry may too wreck him. All this before the arrival of a mysterious otherworldly stranger, John, who is decidedly from somewhere other than Cincinnati, and whose presence happens to coincide with a series of paranormal encounters for the Yosts.
And yet, despite this, John From Cincinnati is compelling, perhaps because it is as much a show about surfing as it isn’t. The first three episodes of the show focus primarily on exploring the humanity of a surprisingly broad spectrum of characters, using surfing—and the gritty border town of Imperial Beach—as a sort of existential prism. Milch, who created the hit HBO series “Deadwood”, as well as the long-running shows “NYPD Blue” and “Hill Street Blues” has succeeded in creating a film treatment of surfing without the glossy sheen that has doomed other attempts. “John” is not surfing for the sake of surfing; in fact, the show was originally titled “John From Elsewhere and His Friend Tex”, and was based on a group in New York, whose lives were similarly touched by this “John From Elsewhere”. When Milch agreed to marry his project with a nascent idea for a surf show, he added to his team of writers celebrated surf noir author Kem Nunn, and former Surfer editor Steve Hawk, to ensure surfing authenticity.
In this regard, with only the notable exception of a liberal attitude toward the throwing of shakas, the show is a definite success. The actors speak and act like surfers, carry their boards like surfers and get in and out of the water like surfers. There are no expository lines meant to illuminate surf speak, and surfing, in general is presented as is, unapologetically.
As for the rest of the show, it is doubtlessly compelling, whether one is a surfer or not. What remains to be seen is whether the intrigue built in the first three episodes (who is this John? Where is he from? Why are people levitating? Will this dysfunctional family be redeemed?) can sustain itself in the same way that seven years of Tony Soprano dodging bullets and FBI indictments has served HBO, and us, so well.