By Dave Lake
With "The Sopranos" wrapping up a decade-long run on HBO, expectations couldn't be higher for the network's much-buzzed-about new drama "John From Cincinnati." Not only does the network need a suitable time-slot replacement for its retiring mob drama, but creator David Milch's previous series, "Deadwood," was canceled earlier than expected because the network was so eager to get his new series on the air.
Centered in the sleepy Southern California surfing town of Imperial Beach,
the show follows three generations of the Yost family, all world-class surfers,
all living very dysfunctional lives.
Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) is the patriarch of the family, a former surfing legend whose career was cut short by an injury. He's unhappily married to Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay), and the two have a son together named Butchie.
Butchie (Brian Van Holt) is a former world champion surfer himself, who hasn't done much over the past few years except watch his life crumble away by shooting a lot of heroin. He's currently living in a run-down motel that was recently purchased by a suicidal lottery winner who's hoping to knock the place down.
Butchie has a son too, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), a 13-year-old surfing prodigy who desperately wants to get sponsored and start competing. Unfortunately for him, Grandpa Mitch, who does most of the parenting in the family, isn't so keen on the idea. It was partially the corporate sponsorship of surfing that contributed to the crummy way his life turned out.
Also lending parenting support to the youngest Yost is Bill (Ed O'Neill), a semi-nutty retired cop/Vietnam vet who acts like a surrogate father to Shaun, even if his only other friends are the houseful of birds he keeps as pets, one of which may just have the power to heal.
And then there's the titular John (Austin Nichols), who may or may not actually be named John, or from Cincinnati, but who approaches Butchie in hopes of learning to surf. John's real intentions aren't immediately apparent, but Butchie, sensing an easy target with deep pockets, takes in the stranger, which sets off a barrage of strange occurrences in town. Mitch levitates one morning after surfing, dead birds come back to life, and Butchie is no longer dopesick. But is John an alien? Is he just slow? Does he have any emotions beneath his never-changing facial expressions? No one's really sure.
Also circling the Yost clan are Linc (Luke Perry), a surfing company executive who wants to sponsor Shaun, Kai (Keala Kennelly), a family friend who runs the local surf shop, and Cass (Emily Rose), a filmmaker hoping to include Mitch in her latest documentary. Oh, and there's the pair of dimwitted drug dealers Butchie owes money to as well.
It's a lot to follow at first, but David Milch and co-creator Kem Nunn, populate the show with richly drawn, multi-layered characters. "Deadwood," however, this ain't. There's no sex, no violence, and not a whole heckuva lot going on. The series starts off rather languid, with the first three episodes all playing out over the course of a day and a half. And despite the show's breezy locale, there's nothing light about "John From Cincinnati." The dysfunction among the Yost family runs deep, resentment abounds, and the clan has a hard time trusting anyone, since outsiders are always trying to get a piece of the legendarily down-and-out family. The only Yost who seems to still have a shot at a decent life is Shaun, who, if he can get out from under the weight of his disaffected family, might just achieve normalcy.
The show has a great cast, including a number of nostalgic faces. There's no sign of Al Bundy in Ed O'Neill's Bill, and Rebecca De Mornay may just be the hottest grandmother ever to grace the small screen. The supporting players are terrific too, including Milch regulars Dayton Callie and Paul Ben-Victor, whom you can't help but chuckle at every time they're on screen.
Despite promos that push the show's metaphysical and surfing angles, "John From Cincinnati" is really about family. Like its HBO predecessors "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "Big Love," the show is another winning drama about a dysfunctional family. And although this one may take a few episodes to really suck you in, it's not the waves or the levitation but the smart, interesting and flawed characters that will keep you coming back.
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