Surreality TV: Inside HBO’s Quirky John from Cincinnati
When you work on a show like HBO’s John from Cincinnati (Sundays at 9 pm/ET), it can screw with your head. Recently, Austin Nichols, who plays the enigmatic John, was memorizing lines for a scene when he had a premonition. “I knew in my heart that I should scream, ‘Stare me down!'” he says. “The next morning when I arrived to shoot the scene, I looked at the revised script and those exact words were staring me in the face. It took my breath away.”
HBO hopes its surreal new drama has the same “Whoa, dude!” effect on viewers. Set in the border town of Imperial Beach, Calif., about 130 miles south of L.A., John rips through the turbulent waters of three generations of a down-in-the-dumps surfing family — grandparents Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) and Cissy Yost (Rebecca De Mornay), their druggie son Butchie (Brian Van Holt), and his surfing-prodigy son Shaun (Greyson Fletcher). They encounter John, a bizarre Elvis look-alike entity who is either an alien, an angel, an idiot savant or none of the above. The only thing we know for certain, says Ed O’Neill, who plays Bill, a friend of the Yost family, “is that his name ain’t John, and he’s not from Cincinnati.”
John starts off weird and doesn’t get any saner. Mitch meets John on the beach and soon finds himself occasionally floating above the ground like a human hovercraft. Meanwhile, an unstable lottery winner named Barry (Matt Winston) moves to town to avenge a wrong done to him by the Yosts more than 20 years ago. Add to the mix a sleazy surfing sponsor (Luke Perry) who wants to sign Shaun, a balding drug dealer (Dayton Callie) trying to shake down Butchie, and a surfing competition with a shocking outcome… and you get the picture.
The surfing safari is led by David Milch, a junkie-turned-TV-writing legend who’s behind such classics as NYPD Blue and Deadwood. John is loosely inspired by the philosophies of William James and Gustav Fechner (both were early influences on modern psychology) and by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it was the execs at HBO who asked Milch if he could set it amid a surfing subculture.
So he donned his writing wet suit, teamed up with surf noir author Kem Nunn, and surrounded himself with a team of rad surfing consultants. The result? A show that captures the dirty, dark underworld of surfing. “It’s the most authentic show I’ve ever seen about surfing,” says Van Holt, who grew up hanging ten in Huntington Beach. “From the setting to how people talk — they don’t look or sound like your poster child Orange County/Blue Crush pretty people.”
Milch was so focused on getting it right that after meeting two of his potential surfing consultants in person, he cast them in major parts: Fletcher is a 16-year-old skateboarding phenom (and son of surfing revolutionary Christian Fletcher) who’s never acted before, and Keala Kennelly, who plays surf-shop board shaper Kai, was the second-best female surfer in the world last year. Even the show’s “real” actors have aquatic chops. Nichols is the son of a surfing dad and a champion waterskiing mom. Van Holt used to surf competitively but quit after many of his board buddies became drug addicts. “So I’m not a junkie but I play one on TV,” he says.
If all this seems rather odd, that’s just the way Milch likes it. He usually gives his actors their scenes the day they’re shooting so they have zero time to prepare. “Last I heard, you don’t get too many rehearsals in life,” he says with a wicked smile. De Mornay recalls being handed a big speech as she was walking to the set. “I’ve never worked like this before. It was scary in the beginning,” she says. “I know where my character, Cissy, started, but I have no idea where she’s going.”
She’s not alone. Ask any cast member to explain the show’s many mysteries and you’re likely to get a scratch of the head. Who is John, for example? And what do all his ominous phrases (“The end is near”) mean? Why does Mitch levitate? And what’s the deal with Zippy, Bill’s miraculous parrot?
The cast has spent countless hours debating these issues. “Every day we go to the bar and talk about the day’s craziness,” says Van Holt. So is the show destined to be another Lost, which keeps raising questions while offering few answers? Milch will say only this: “More will be revealed, but that doesn’t mean I know what it’s going to be.”
Sunday, January 24, 2010 Photos: El Camino Motel, Imperial Beach (“John From Cincinnati’s” Snug Harbor)
One of my favorite TV shows in recent years was HBO’s brilliant, criminally-unwatched “John From Cincinnati.” Set in Imperial Beach, California, much of it was actually also shot there. The exterior of the Snug Harbor Motel, hands down the show’s most important set was filmed in IB’s El Camino Motel.
Run down, abandoned, and left to rot off Palm Avenue, I finally decided to get a few shots there. I spoke with neighbors at two different businesses; no one claimed to know who owned it. – I’ve read that the cabins on the grounds where Butchie lived were built by the production company. I suspect that’s true, but even now they look as if they’ve been there all along.
As an avid fan of David Milch’s looping, baroque “Milchspeak,” I loved the show dialogue, particularly the reflective, swirling way that John himself usually spoke. This is just a little taste from John’s famous “Sermon at the Motel” – and yes, it’s just a bit, and it’s clean. – “Joe is a Doubting Thomas. Joe will save Not-Aleman. Joe will bring his buddies home. This is how Freddie relaxes: cup-of-Joe and Winchell’s variety dozen… – …Fur is big, mud is big, the stick is big. The Word is big. Fire is huge. The wheel is huge. The line and circle are big. On the wall, the line and circle are huge. On the wall, the man at the wall makes a man from the circle and line. The man at the wall makes a Word on the wall from the circle and line. The Word on the wall hears my Father.”
In January, there were only two hotel foreclosures in the San Diego area. In September, there were 4 hotels which went into foreclosure. They were Pacific Coast Inn, Mount Woodson Hotel in Ramona, El Camino Motel and Harbor House in Little Italy…
Over the past months, the hotels that have gone into foreclosure were all the San Diego branches of Extended Stay America,
Hotel chain’s bankruptcy filing extends industry’s woes.
(…..)”John From Cincinnati is a very ambitious TV show that appears to only have lasted one season. The big question is: did it deserve more.
I would say so. John From Cincinnati is brilliantly written taking twists and turns not common for TV, making it a very original show. Touching on moments of existentialism, belief in God, drug abuse, redemption, and so on, John From Cincinnati is the type of show I wish would be made more often. The characters are well developed, with their own quirks, hangups, and problems that all feel real and fit the actors perfectly, and the storyline takes twists and turns that you’d never expect. This isn’t your typical cliched television show.
The acting is superb, and in many cases I would say that it’s some of it’s actors best work. Of these, the two standouts in my mind are Ed O’Neill and Brian Van Holt. Ed O’Neill as Bill Jacks, a former cop and friend of the Yosts, plays a man who is still adjusting to life without a badge and without his wife. He gets the meatiest lines of the show, and, in my opinion, gives some of his best acting work apart from his performance as the patriarch in Modern Family. Brian Van Holt has a little more of a wall to climb playing the drug addicted failure of a son who’s heard one too man times that he’s a loser and needs to get off the drugs, but the way he portrays it makes you feel every tick from messed up to jonesing and beyond. You feel him when he tries to redeem himself and find his way back into a better relationship with his son.
But I have to fault the series for being a bit too impenetrable at times and even a tad bit pretentious. At times the show is too clever and self aware of it, Milch and his writing seem to be trying to send a message, and try to hard to rap the message in an enigma in something of an attempt to show off. I still can’t tell you that I know what all of it means, and maybe I will eventually figure it out on future viewings and while the rewatchability factor is a strength of the show, it’s also it’s weakness.
All in all, I would highly recommend the show. The dialogue is brilliant and just fun to listen to, and the acting is superb. The movie works on various levels from comedy to drama and beyond and is highly entertaining.”
That “preliminary” review of JFC at the time it was first aired on June 10, 2007 has everything wrong and very little right, still it’s part of JFC history, interesting to read and should be saved, if not for anyone but us.
“John’ explores surfing’s dark underbelly
A few scenes into the second episode of HBO’s new “John From Cincinnati,” one of the characters starts a long, rambling discourse about his life.
After a bit, another character raises his eyebrows and says, “You’re getting a little hard to follow.”
That may be how many viewers feel about “John” at just about the same point. The series, which debuts this Sunday at 10 after the series finale of “The Sopranos,” certainly is unique, not only in its setting but in its tone and ambitions. But it also is maddeningly elusive in its vision, and could be frustrating to anyone seeking a central story line or even sympathetic characters to hang on to.
Set in a seamy Southern California beach world, “John” has been something of a Frankenstein’s monster in its evolution. Creator David Milch (“Deadwood,” “NYPD Blue”) originally intended the show to be set in New York City, far away from the waves.
But HBO thought his concept might fit into an idea brought to the cable channel by Herb and Dibi Fletcher, the patriarch and matriarch of a well-known surfing family in San Clemente who bear something of a resemblance to the Yost family in “John.” Along the way, Milch tacked on input from Kem Nunn, whose surf noir novels (such as “Tijuana Straits”) have developed a cult following.
The result is a series about surfing that bears absolutely no relationship to the sunny world immortalized by the Beach Boys. Imperial Beach is a town of shuttered motels, dilapidated Advertisement duplexes, needle-strewn beaches and lost souls. Life is gnarly, as twisted as the driftwood littering the sands.
The three generations of the Yost family, surfing legends who call Imperial Beach home, are awash in self-pity, with the exception of grandson and surf-champion-in-training Shaun (played by Grayson Fletcher, the Fletchers’ real-life grandson).
Grandfather Mitch (Bruce Greenwood of “I, Robot”) revolutionized the sport but now surfs in the early morning mists to avoid his fans. Grandmother Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay, “Risky Business”) struggles to keep the family together with a surf shop and pushes Shaun to compete in surf contests – against Mitch’s wishes. Mitch and Cissy’s son Butchie (Brad Van Holt, “Black Hawk Down”) has degenerated from top pro athlete to a loser who staggers from drug score to drug score.
Swirling around the family is a rogue’s gallery of users, abusers and enablers. There’s a lawyer (Willie Garson of “Sex and the City”) who doesn’t exactly serve high-end clients, a motel manager (veteran character actor Luiz Guzman) who gives Butchie a place to live and deal, and the new motel owner (Matt Winston, “Little Miss Sunshine”) who is equally fond of his guns and his teddy bear.
A slightly-addled ex-cop who talks to birds (Ed O’Neill of “Married With Children”) provides Shaun with something of a father figure. A slimy surfing promoter (Luke Perry, “Beverly Hills, 90210”), who Mitch blames for Butchie’s addiction, is trying to get his hooks into Shaun.
About the only adult with a measure of focus in her life is Cissy’s assistant at the surf shop (real-life pro surfer Keala Kennelly) – and she’s got the hots for Butchie, hardly a winning proposition.
And then there’s John (Austin Nichols, who played Morgan Earp on “Deadwood”), who is more likely from Mars than from Cincinnati. His first line – actually, the first line in the series – is “the end is near,” before he goes on to offer such pronouncements as “Mitch Yost must get back in the game.”
John is less a character (one of the problems with the early episodes of the series) than a symbolic device conjured up by Milch to alter the lives of the Yosts and – perhaps – to redeem them.
He is an emotional sponge who has no feelings (or anything else) of his own, but his presence on the beach gives rise to a series of miracles, including Mitch levitating and one of Bill’s birds, a parrot named Zippy, bringing living things back from the dead.
In his past work, particularly on “Deadwood,” Milch always has challenged audiences with his ideas and constructs. But “John” is so densely surrealistic and metaphysical, with glancing references to everything from Sept. 11 to German philosophy – and its setting and characters so initially unrelatable – that it’s hard to grasp exactly what Milch has in mind.
In a recent interview, the ever-erudite Milch paraphrased the 19th century American philosopher William James in suggesting that the series is all about “lawless intrusions in what we take to be reality.”
That’s fine as a storytelling concept, but even the finest flights of fantasy need some grounding. My wife – whom I often use as a barometer on new shows – lasted through two episodes of “John” before turning to me and asking, “I care about these people precisely why?” It’s a good question, likely to be raised by other viewers.
Still, I found enough mesmerizing moments, bits of character and sharp Milch dialogue in the opening episodes that I’ll probably stick around to catch a few more waves.
Certainly, the cast is uniformly good (Greenwood and O’Neill stand out) and the direction by Mark Tinker on two of the first episodes, including Sunday’s, is lovely. (Tinker, one of TV’s best directors, has worked with Milch on “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood,” so he knows his way around the writer’s profanity-laden, often dense passages.)
But at some point fairly quickly, Milch is going to have to give me and other viewers a little more than a quirky, albeit sometimes fascinating, tone poem and engage us with his storytelling. It’s one thing to say your series is about something; it’s another to convey that in a concrete way to the audience you are trying to reach.” Sunday, June 10, 2007
Very interesting interview with Chandra West (Tina Blake), where we can confirm that JFC is still remembered with love and interest and “HBO still sucks” (Waxon’s words on Facebook, not mine!, and said very well!) What I liked most was the journalist setting respectful tone in his questions about JFC. Doesn’t happen very often.
posted by Al Norton 06.19.2010
“Al Norton: Do people still come up to you and ask why HBO cancelled John from Cincinnati? I ask because it’s something I still hear from readers at least once a month.
Chandra West: Yes they do. People absolutely come up to me and say, “God, I loved that show. I was so bummed out when it got canceled”, or “I didn’t quite get it but it was really interesting.” I loved doing that show. David Milch is a genius. The show was a bit wacky but it was so fun and such a good cast.
Al Norton:You mentioned fans saying they liked it even though they felt like they might not be getting it; did the cast ever turn to each other on set and say the same thing?
Chandra West:Yeah (laughing). That definitely happened. It’s funny, working with David Milch, it’s almost like people are under his spell a little bit. It’s like drinking the kool-aid. You get on board with him and he’s so smart, you could just listen to him talk all day long, although I’m certainly not smart enough to understand what he’s saying the whole time. You want to just go with it. Things were a little hectic and he does things very spur of the moment, very last minute, and everyone does it without question because they’re there for the process and the journey with him.
Al Norton: You’d been acting for a while when you got your NYPD Blue job but was it still intimidating joining a show that was such a well oiled and successful machine?
Chandra West: It was. That and John were my two favorite jobs of my career. I had a great part on NYPD Blue and being able to sink into something helps but it really was intimidating. My first day on set, the first scene I did was with Mark Paul (Gosselaar) and Dennis (Franz) and when Dennis first turned to me and said something I almost started giggling like a little school girl. It was Sipowicz! It was so surreal to be there talking to him. “
Chandra West has a part in the vampire/werewolf show “Gates” that premieres on ABC on Sunday. River of (True) Blood reached networks, what else is new! Death and sex sells.
Thanks or posting this review, Sven. It makes me sad that JFC was unrecognized at the time. I always felt that the first reviewer who didn’t quite “get it”,and therefore slammed it, started a snowball of negative criticism. It was almost absurd the way writers would never give a morsel of praise to the show. Now, of course, it is too late, but with the release of the DVDs and the airing in other countries,we find new fans and positive voices not influenced by that lynch mob mentality. Hooray!
This video has a story. As you could find out on YouTube it was posted very recently, January 26, 2010. The young man, only 23, says he made the video as “a tribute to the short lived, and widely misunderstood, John From Cincinnati.” Would be interesting to ask him to say something about JFC. He is an aspiring musician and a filmmaker, his tastes in movies lean towards Sci-fi, so his perception of JFC may be as of something like “Starman”. Now the video. The song used is “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas.