I know this is a bit of an omission, but I've never seen NYPD Blue or Deadwood, David Milch's previous series, so - other than the usual HBO seal of quality - I came to John from Cincinnati with no preconceptions.
On the surface, it's a family drama set on the Californian coast, involving three generations of the Yost family: grandfather Mitch, who retired early from competitive surfing because of injury; Butch, who somehow 'reinvented' the sport before falling prey to drug addiction; and his son, 13-year-old Shaun, who seems to have inherited the family talent.
However, it soon becomes apparent that there's more going on. Cleaning up after a surf, Mitch is surprised to find himself levitating a few inches off the ground. (This was used as the defining image in the marketing of the series.)
Meanwhile, an enigmatic bequiffed stranger - the John of the title - also materialises. Not much of a conversationalist, his vocabulary consists purely of phrases he picks up from others, plus such gnomic utterances as 'The end is near' and 'Some things I know and some things I don't'. Maybe we'll find out later where he picked those up from.
John is clearly the kind of mysterious catalytic stranger who used to turn up in Dennis Potter's plays. He soon hooks up with the opportunistic addict Butch, who sees him as a source of funding. Before long, a reconciliation of sorts is struck between Butch and his father.
Despite a couple of other subplots, the big questions raised by the first episode are who is John, what is his purpose and what - if anything - does it have to do with Mitch's levitation. And there's the problem - tonally, the show strikes an uneasy balance. There's nothing sufficiently compelling or empathetic about the principle characters to make the family drama engaging, while the stylised Lynch-lite 'weirdness' just becomes irritating.
However, what John of Cincinnati does brilliantly is create a sense of place. Imperial Beach is what a wankier writer than me might call a liminal zone. Not only is it on the border of land and sea (the crashing of waves is a constant presence on the soundtrack), but it's also on the frontier between the US and Mexico; we see a group of illegal immigrants making their escape in the first couple of minutes.
In light of some of the strangeness, it also seems to be a meeting place of the natural and the supernatural. Maybe young Shaun will be a key figure: his surfing and skateboarding skills show that he's equally adept on the water and the land - maybe he can also straddle the gap in the series between the physical and the metaphysical.
If he does, I won't be there to watch him, I'm afraid. I'm already struggling to keep up with the series that I'm enjoying. It's interesting, though - I've managed to write more about a programme I didn't really enjoy than most of the one that I have.
The Open Road
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