Magazine article The New Yorker

DEAD IN THE WATER; on Television

Magazine article The New Yorker

DEAD IN THE WATER; on Television

Article excerpt

You know how when you use a big bill to buy a train ticket or stamps from a vending machine and unexpectedly get a handful of Susan B. Anthony dollars as change you think, Oh, come on, this is no good--why didn't the machine warn me? I'm never going to be able to get rid of these--nobody wants them. I imagine that similar thoughts must have gone through the collective head of HBO upon delivery of David Milch's "John from Cincinnati," the series that began minutes after "The Sopranos" ended, two Sundays ago. Audiences, too, may have recoiled when they watched the first episode, and thought, Hey, don't try to pawn this off on me!

HBO, on the strength of "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "The Wire," "Deadwood," "Entourage," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Six Feet Under," and a number of documentaries, has, with good reason, been regarded for almost a decade as the channel that can do no wrong. Because our expectations are now so high, and have so frequently been met and then exceeded, it's easy to be unduly disappointed and judgmental when a series isn't everything we want it to be. But it's not fair to think of HBO as HB Oh No every time a show flatlines. The channel itself seems worried at the moment, though; it aired a nervously jokey promo before the last episode of "The Sopranos," using the line "Endings make room for beginnings," and reassuring us that it has "more new series than ever before" coming up.

Who wouldn't be worried, with "John from Cincinnati" taking over as the channel's flagship for the next few months, in the Sunday-at-nine slot? A drama about surfing and spirituality, it takes place in the gritty border town of Imperial Beach, California, a stone's throw from Tijuana--a locale where Kem Nunn, who co-created "John," set one of the novels that have earned his work the term "surf noir." "John" centers on three generations of a fictional famous surfing family, the Yosts, and is as stunningly dull as Milch's previous series "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood" were brilliant and penetrating. Mitch and Cissy Yost (Bruce Greenwood and Rebecca De Mornay) are the family elders; Mitch left the world of competitive surfing behind twenty years ago, because of a knee injury. Their son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), who, we're told, revolutionized surfing when he was younger, stopped riding because he became a drug addict. Butchie's son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher, the real-life scion of a surfing dynasty, whose grandparents, Herbie and Dibi Fletcher, are consulting producers of "J. from C."), is a sweet and beautiful thirteen-year-old with long blond hair, unsoured by life and a phenom in his own right, who lives with his hippieish but responsible grandparents. What tension there is--there's a lot of shouting and swearing and scowling in the series, but not much tension--is generated by Shaun's desire to go pro and get an agent and sponsors.

In interviews and in his work, Milch expounds upon his great subject: the oneness of things, the connectedness and indivisibility of all life. This trope ran like a vein of ore through "Deadwood," without calling much attention to itself. This time around, the theme has become viral, killing everything in its path. On Craig Ferguson's late-night talk show a couple of weeks ago, when Milch was asked what "John from Cincinnati" was about, he said, "If God were trying to reach out to us, and if he felt a certain urgency about it . . . that's what it's about." Going deeper, he went on, "The wave . . . is the only visible embodiment of what physicists tell us all matter is composed of, which is particles held together by some kind of magnetic or molecular force. And that's what makes the waves move." After Ferguson did a little hostly vamping in response, Milch added, "And if God were trying to reach out to us, and teach us something about the deepest nature of matter, he might use some drugged-out surfers."

It may be that God is trying to reach out and touch the Yosts, who could use a little redemption, through the presence of John (Austin Nichols), a clean-cut oddball who turns up at the beach one day when Mitch is out riding the waves (he still surfs, though always alone and evidently without joy) and whose first words--addressed to Luke Perry, who plays a surfing agent named Linc--are "The end is near. …

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