The official description of John from Cincinnati reads: “In Imperial Beach, California, the dysfunctional Yost family intersects with two new arrivals to the community: a dim-but-wealthy surfing enthusiast and (a) man spurned by the Yosts years ago.”
It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? A family drama set against the backdrop of the professional surfboarding scene, introducing viewers to the characters from the perspective of two outsiders -- one they grow to love, one they already hate. If you’re a TV exec convinced that young people want a sexier Six Feet Under meets X-Games at the Beach, and this guy all the critics love is going to be running the series, of course you’re going to pick this up.
As discussed last time, that’s not what they got. And with the philosophical basis of the show covered, we’ll turn now to the actual narrative of the series. The cast of John is massive, and integral to the ethos of the show is the idea that everyone is connected. Listing every character would take forever, but breaking them down into teams might make this more manageable.
The Yost Clan
Early promotional images of the series (in fact, the promo still used for its Amazon Prime listing) featured a middle-aged surfer levitating a few inches off the ground. This is Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), the patriarch of the Yost family. A renowned professional surfer in the early 1970s, his career was killed by a knee injury. Mitch’s wife is Cissy Yost (Rebecca De Mornay), once viewed as the hottest babe on the beach, and currently the proprietor of a surf store in the Imperial Beach community.
Their son is Butchie Yost (Brian Van Holt), a character we’re introduced to as a heroin addict living in a derelict hotel. Years earlier, Butchie continued the legacy of his father and entered the world of pro surfing, where he “changed the game” and became world famous (how one “changes the game” of surfing, or the specific skills Butchie had on the board, is never revealed.) Fame didn’t agree with Butchie, and the Yost family blames Butchie’s manager/agent/Stinkweed founder Linc Stark for Butchie’s drug addiction.
During the height of his fame, Butchie secretly fathered a child with porn actress/call girl Tina Blake (Chandra West). Blake, dealing with her own issues and unwilling to raise a son with a drug addict, left her infant baby on Mitch and Cissy’s doorstep and hasn’t returned to town since. Butchie & Tina’s son is now a fourteen-year-old surfer, who’s already experimenting with drugs, and maybe has more going on with his life, but to be honest, he’s such a poorly drawn character it’s hard to care too much about this Shaun Yost (portrayed by real-life teen surfer Greyson Fletcher.)
As the series opens, Butchie has come into money and just purchased an obscene amount of heroin, Linc Stark is looking to sign young Shaun to a contract, Cissy and Mitch disagree over whether they should allow Linc back into their lives, and after an encounter with the mysterious John Monad, Mitch discovers that he can occasionally levitate off the ground. More drama ensues when Shaun, against his grandfather/adoptive father’s wishes, participates in a surfing competition and breaks his neck in an accident.
Yost Clan Hangers-On
Surrounding the Yost family are surf shop employee/Butchie’s high school girlfriend Kai (played by another pro surfer, Keala Kennelly), a retired cop named Bill Jacks (Ed O'Neill), whose late wife took a liking to Butchie when he was a kid helping her with her groceries, Dr. Michael Smith (Garret Dillahunt), the doctor who treats Shaun after he breaks his neck and finds his life in crisis after experiencing a miracle, and Dwayne (Matthew Maher), an obsessive Yost fan who runs their family website and is receiving strange messages via this John Monad. Hanging around Dwayne at the cybercafé is Jerri (Paula Malcomson), who’s mainly here to ridicule the “hairlip” and give another Deadwood alumnus something to do for a few episodes.
The Stinkweed Operation
The pilot opens with Linc Stark (Luke Perry) spying on Mitch Yost, who manages to still surf (just not professionally) in spite of his injury. They have a brief discussion that indicates there’s a history there, and popping into the scene is John Monad, who instructs Linc to “get in the game” and Mitch to “get back in the game.” Linc’s attempts to sign Mitch’s grandson to a contract are fruitless, so he instructs his secret employee/aspiring documentary filmmaker, Cass (Emily Rose) to seduce Mitch, hoping to keep an eye on the Yost patriarch, if not outright sway his decision.
(One way Milch was possibly thumbing his nose at HBO was his refusal to depict any of his actors nude, even the ones cast because of their obvious physical beauty. So while sex is an element of some plots, the show itself cuts away from almost all lovemaking, depriving HBO of any of that trademark nudity.)
After Linc witnesses firsthand the miracle of Shaun’s healed neck, and Cissy Yost is on the cusp of allowing Shaun to sign with Stinkweed, he’s faced with a dilemma. He feels an obligation to spread the gospel, so to speak, about the miracle but realizes this will turn off at least half of their potential demographic. This, very possibly, was a metacommentary on Milch’s part, acknowledging that much of HBO’s audience probably doesn’t care so much about an examination of man’s relationship with God, but he’s doing it anyway.
Initially, Linc appears merely to be an agent or manager, but a few episodes in, we learn he’s actually the owner of Stinkweed, the surf gear company that made millions during the heyday of Butchie Yost’s fame, back when he was their celeb spokesman. His second-in-command/best friend is Jake Ferris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who takes advantage of Linc’s existential crisis and convinces the board to fire Linc. Jake Ferris seems to have been a character created on the fly, however, introduced as a conman midway through the season, then actively participating in Linc’s selfless reinvention of Stinkweed during the closing episodes.
The Hotel Crew
Once we’ve reached the cast of the Snug Harbor hotel, we’re officially at the point of Too Many Characters. Initially, the episodes treat this group as the Greek chorus, commenting on the dramas surrounding the Yost family and occasionally showing bits of personality. Within a few episodes, however, there seems to be some effort to make Snug Harbor the focal point for John’s new ministry, the misfits at the hotel the unlikely disciples of this new message.
Introduced as a derelict hotel, Ramon Gaviota (Luis Guzmán) sticks around as manager because lawyer/surfing fanatic Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson) has arranged for Butchie Yost to live as its sole occupant, even as Butchie’s destroying his life with drugs. Meanwhile, a figure from Butchie’s childhood, Barry Cunningham (Matt Winston) has a vision that grants him the winning numbers for the Mega Millions, purchasing the hotel with his lottery winnings. Barry was sexually assaulted in a room at the Snug Harbor at the age of ten, and two years later, was given a concussion by Butchie when he was bullying the effeminate boy with a broom handle. Barry’s had epilepsy ever since, his seizures granting him prophetic visions. (Milch’s comments seem to indicate he’s open to the theory people with seizures have a direct line to God others lack. The character of Barry Cunningham is given the most Deadwood-esque monologues during the series, for what that’s worth.)
Barry purchases the hotel with the plans of demolishing the place, hoping to eradicate the site of his childhood trauma, the harrowing incident he’s carried throughout life. After encountering John, however, Barry instead decides to face his past abuse, renovate the hotel, and go into business with Ramon and Dickstein.
A psychological block nearly prevented me from mentioning the two latest residents of the hotel, “The Hawaiians” -- two buffoonish drug dealers who clearly aren’t native Hawaiians. The story justification is that druglord Steady Freddie Lopez (Dayton Callie) has left his operation in Hawaii to personally beat up Butchie, who’s furious Freddie ordered his lackey Palaka (Paul Ben-Victor) to sell him a “burn bag” (fake drugs.) Freddie did this because he knew Butchie would O.D. and die if he bought that much heroin, yet he’s still willing to catch a flight and personally beat Butchie when he leaves Freddie a nasty voicemail.
There’s some talk of Bill Jacks overlooking Freddie’s life as a criminal and finding a new friend, and Palaka is allegedly here as comedic relief, but these characters often seem useless. Just look at them -- they’re two “tough guys” the Fonz might have to deal with outside the Friday night sock-hop. Dayton Callie is a fine actor, but this is possibly the worst role he was ever given. The guy already looks like he’s drawing Social Security here -- we’re supposed to buy him as some menacing bonebreaker?
Finally, on the periphery of the hotel cast is Vietnam Joe (Jim Beaver), a vet still carrying mental scars from the war, who somehow knows that Butchie stays at the hotel and delivers John to his front door.
Milch clearly had plans for these players, the idea being all are social outcasts who will serve as improbable apostles of John, but nearly every scene with these characters feels like a distraction from the real story. If the focus of the series was only on Butchie, or Mitch and Cissy, maybe there would be room for these guys, but we’re already expected to care about the entire Yost family, their friends, their store, and the business operation they feel burned them in the past. It’s just too much.
Banned from the Actors’ Studio
The cast of John can be broken into three categories: Those cast for acting ability, those cast for their looks, and those cast for their surfing ability. Overwhelmingly, those cast for their looks can’t act, and those cast for their surfing ability are even worse. To be fair, some grow noticeably as actors over the course of ten episodes, and at least one of the weakest players here went on to headline her own series. That doesn’t excuse the painful first impression they’re making in the early episodes of this series, though. Milch’s dialogue isn’t easy for even a marginally skilled actor, so tossing these byzantine sentences and quirky monologues at novices didn’t do the players or audience any favors.
There are some fine performances, it’s just that the better actors tend to exude the East Coast, and aren’t convincing at all as Southern California natives. Ed O’Neill is playing the same New York cop we saw on Big Apple, yet he’s inexplicably an LAPD retiree. And Bruce Greenwood is compelling in every scene he appears in, yet never once comes across as the native-born California surfing god he’s intended to be.
As for Rebecca DeMornay, there’s no way anyone could buy that as a West Coast accent…and, lordy, are her screaming scenes hard to take, even though I do admire her commitment in depicting just how nasty real-life fights can be. And considering how many of the minor roles on the series went to Deadwood alumni, it’s very possible there are more Southern accents present than Southern California ones. Garret Dillahunt is a fantastic actor, but I can’t possibly buy him as a native Californian. Mark-Paul Gosselaar, meanwhile, is credible as someone involved with pro surfing, and handles his first actual dose of Milch dialogue well, but only has a small part in three episodes.
The best actor to meld SoCal with Milch Speak is Brian Van Holt as Butchie. This guy I can buy as a beach bum, but also damaged and secretly smart enough to talk like a Milch character. I don’t even know what he’s done since this show, but he deserved a ton of work after this role, and I’d love to see him in another Milch series.
Did Any of This Come Together?
John from Cincinnati is hindered by some weak performances, an overly ambitious narrative, and a lack of authenticity in its core premise. It’s one thing to take pro surfing as your starting place and use it as a way to discuss man, art, and God. An argument can be made that surfing is itself an art, complicated by the issues always surrounding commerce and fame once you turn pro. You can even claim that facing the waves is one way to connect with God. All fine, but bringing 9-11 into this was always a stretch, and it’s obvious when watching these episodes that Milch really couldn’t care less about the nuances of the sport or surfing lifestyle. While NYPD Blue and Deadwood benefited from Milch’s research into the world of his characters, the domain of the Yost family feels intensely shallow.
The series is also attempting to reaffirm a theme at the center of Deadwood, the paradoxical idea that we all exist as individuals but also as members of a community. The final episodes try to present the case that the Yost family has been disconnected from the community of Imperial Beach, focused instead on allowing their personal wounds to fester, a problem resolved when the town comes together to search for the missing Shaun. The concept feels as if it comes out of nowhere, and requires us to forget the Yosts own a surf shop in the middle of the community. If the store had been established as derelict, the empty storefront serving as a symbol of the Yosts’ abandonment of their community, the idea wouldn’t feel so arbitrary.
Another element the show communicates very poorly is the idea of aspiring filmmaker Cass following John’s guidance, documenting the vibrant life of Imperial Beach even though she doesn’t know what exactly she’s filming. Somehow, this footage of open air markets and Mexican wrestlers is going to provide an anecdote to America’s lost direction, post 9-11. In retrospect, it’s slightly more obvious Cass’ footage is capturing the hubbub and excitement of the community allegedly abandoned by the Yosts, but this doesn’t serve as much of a payoff after episode after episode of the character aimlessly searching for inspiration.
When the show does connect, however, it leaves a noticeable impact. Butchie and Kai’s healed friendship, Bill Jacks finding the strength to climb the steps and visit his late wife’s deathbed for the first time, Dr. Smith choosing to quit his job in order to spare the Yosts the legal complications surrounding their miracle, Barry entering the room that’s scarred him since the age of ten, and the way the childlike John ingratiates himself with the cast of damaged souls can’t be dismissed. Additionally, the theological issues raised are compelling, if you’re willing to look past the opaque delivery of the ideas. Certainly the strangest show Milch has ever produced, John from Cincinnati isn’t for everyone, but patient viewers will likely be rewarded.
- John’s voiceover in the final episode details where the show would’ve gone in a hypothetical second season. There seems to be an idea that the three female characters who slept with members of the Yost family during these episodes are now all pregnant, with Kai somehow having a special role as a mother.
- The father John consistently refers to is clearly intended to be God, yet the series finale throws two curveballs at the viewer. Linc learns from John that he also has a grandfather, which puts a wrinkle in the show’s theology, and we actually meet John’s father -- who turns out to be a used car salesman played by Peter Jason, Deadwood’s Con Stapleton. Maybe there was some payoff intended for Season Two here, but the scene just comes across as gibberish today.
- The opening credits of the series, Joe Strummer’s "Johnny Appleseed" plays into one of the themes of John, the idea of Butchie’s life being destroyed by the machine surrounding his fame. (“If you’re out there getting the honey, then you don’t go killing all the bees.”)
- I’m not sympathetic to the idea of anyone but Butchie being responsible for his addiction, by the way.
- Butchie has money in the opening episode because he’s recently received his settlement from the city, a payout for falling asleep under a street sweeper. That’s such an oddly specific bit of backstory, it’s always amused me.
- Every character on the show refers to Shaun as thirteen, but he declares himself fourteen in a conversation with Bill. Maybe the idea is that the Yosts are so dysfunctional they can’t even keep track of his age, but for all their faults, Mitch and Cissy do seem to be attentive adoptive parents of Shaun.
- This bugged me when originally watching the episodes, and my position hasn’t changed. Miracles begin happening to characters in the show even before they come into contact with John, like when Shaun (who has yet to meet John) touches Bill’s parrot and somehow brings it back to life. This needlessly confuses the rules of the series.
- A wiki exists for the show, if you’re looking for more annotations for this material: http://jfc.wikia.com/wiki/
- Harley Quinn makes a cameo in the series, as a drawing on Shaun’s surfboard.
- If you’re familiar with the condition known as opioid-induced constipation, you’ll notice a subtle clue that Butchie’s cured of heroin as soon as he meets John. And, yeah, I feel gross discussing this.
- In the series finale, Butchie refers to himself as Tina Blake’s ex-husband, which doesn’t seem to fit with the idea of Shaun being their secret lovechild. If it’s public knowledge this famous surfer was married to a porn actress, and he has a son born during the time they were married, there’s no way the identity of Shaun’s mother is a secret.
- Over half of Luke Perry’s lines sound looped throughout the series’ run. No clue what the story behind that is.
- The behind-the-scenes footage of Milch explaining John’s sermon at the hotel reveals some plotlines that were excised from the show, like Ramon sneaking in “kids with hairlips” across the border into the US for medical aid and housing them in his hotel, and Dr. Smith renting out a medical clinic to treat them.
- If the series did turn out to be a big hit, how would’ve Milch handled the actual, uneventful day of 9-11-14?
Next Time: I gave up on Luck after two episodes. Should I try again?