Chances are, if you know nothing else about John From Cincinnati, you’ve seen the TV and print ads of Bruce Greenwood, who plays a legendary surfer, levitating a few inches off the ground. It’s a paranormal touch not usually associated with the low-down humanism of series co-creator David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue). But it is in keeping with the work of co-creator Kem Nunn, a surfer and novelist whose books — starting with the great Tapping the Source (1984) — have always allowed for the elemental, mystical pull of the ocean.
Set in grungy environs around Southern California’s Imperial Beach, John From Cincinnati concerns a radically dysfunctional family — aside from Greenwood’s Mitch Yost, there is his wife, Cissy (a breeze-blown-lovely Rebecca De Mornay), their drug-addicted surfer son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), and Butchie’s 14-year-old son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), a surf rat who wants to turn pro, much against the wishes of grandfather Mitch. The Yosts all squabble with each other, yet Milch and Nunn are efficient at conveying the salty clan’s mutual love and concern.
Into their lives comes the title character (Austin Nichols), a blank-faced young man who either repeats what anyone says or makes cryptic, oracular statements (most often: ”Some things I know and some things I don’t” and ”The end is near”). Butchie befriends John because John has some money and junkies appreciate money. The show wants us to remain confused about John — he might be, as someone wonders, ”slow,” or an idiot savant, or the indirect agent of a miracle occurring in the second hour that I won’t spoil.
I barely have room to say that Married?With Children’s Ed O’Neill is wondrous and Deadwood-style foulmouthed as an ex-cop family friend, and Luke Perry is archly wolfish as the surfing promoter who helped ruin Mitch’s career and plots to control Shaun’s. And Greenwood — so sly and quiet yet commanding — renders Mitch a surfer of great metaphysical waves. The ceaseless ways in which Milch and Nunn challenge our expectations about how families, friends, and strangers are meant to convey their fealty to each other, along with some fine hard-boiled dialogue and fisticuffs, suggest great continuing pleasures.
The TV-network apothecaries like their products labeled for easy audience identification — Hugh Laurie’s House is always cranky; Ugly Betty is always pretty on the inside. Yet I, like some of you, enjoy the experience more when there are some things I know and some things I don’t. We are, in short, in league with this John from Cincinnati. A-