Monday, January 22, 2018
The Milch Studies: John from Cincinnati - “Some Things I Know…”
John from Cincinnati, created by David Milch and “surf noir” novelist Kem Nunn, is the oddest series in Milch’s biography. The only Milch series to feature supernatural elements, the show was conceived at the behest of HBO’s new management, who viewed Deadwood as too expensive to continue. They also wanted a show that could attract a young audience, and apparently because Milch was already in the room with them (and maybe they felt bad about canceling his show), the execs asked if he had any thoughts on a show based in the world of surfing.
Even though he’s lived there since the early 1980s, nothing in Milch’s work communicates any affection for southern California. Milch later implied in a talk that his interest in surfing begins and ends with old Annette Funicello movies, and that he views surfers as the dumbest people in America.
Don’t Stop Believin’
What Milch wanted to write was a statement against the Iraq war, and his belief that the modern American’s consumption of media has enabled the country to dehumanize strangers as mere images on a screen. In Milch’s mind, this means the public is open to the concept of exterminating the entire Muslim population, because they really didn’t like that 9-11 show and don’t want any sequels to it. In the early days of Deadwood, Milch indicated he was so disturbed by 9-11 and the public’s response that he’d never do another series set in present day America.
It might be worth mentioning that Milch has spent much of his adult life in academia and Hollywood, so his perception of what the average American thinks about anything is questionable. When he was challenged a bit on his “extermination” hypothesis during a forum with an old friend from academia, Milch didn’t offer much of a defense outside of saying, basically, “Eh, maybe I’m wrong. I hope that I am.”
Debuting on the same night as the series finale of The Sopranos (pretty much the nicest slot any HBO drama could ask for), John from Cincinnati was already facing some amount of resentment from Deadwood fans, thanks to HBO’s cowardly means of promoting the show. Rather than fessing up to the real reasons for cancelling Deadwood, the network publicly declared Deadwood is ending because David Milch has this significant, timely statement he has to make with John from Cincinnati and your dusty old show about the cowboys or whatever will just have to wait.
The reality is that Milch a) wanted something to work on (after a proposed NBC legal drama with Steven Bochco fell through) and b) felt horrible that so many members of the Deadwood cast and crew were now out of a job. So, as much as John from Cincinnati was going to be Milch’s statement about war, art, modern America and our connection to humanity and God, plus whatever surfing crap could be worked in, it was also going to be a way to keep as much of the Deadwood family alive as possible.
Because Surfing Was Dominating the Culture in 2007, Right?
HBO’s hopes of getting a cheaper show, one that would appeal to these kids today, were surely killed a few episodes into John. It turned out to be just as expensive as Deadwood, reportedly because Milch was constantly finding roles for actors he liked, even though the cast was already bloated in the pilot, in addition to the constant reshoots, a signature of Milch’s chaotic method of writing/producing a series. And anyone looking for an R-rated drama centered on the sexy world of surfing probably wasn’t expecting a story about God speaking to a painfully dysfunctional family of pro surfers in very mysterious ways, so the question of just what audience to target could never be resolved by HBO.
Some Deadwood fans gave John from Cincinnati a chance and fell in love with the series. Others were frustrated and bailed after a few episodes. Critical reaction was mixed. Reportedly, the episode order was reduced after the network realized Milch was producing something aggressively non-commercial. HBO announced the series’ cancellation a few hours after the season finale aired, and the show’s cultural impact is probably limited to a background joke about its short run on Bojack Horseman. The series is available for free streaming on Amazon Prime, however, and can be just as rewarding as it is frustrating, so it’s worth at least a chance to win you over.
Initially, I wasn’t planning on spending too much time on John, but after re-watching the episodes and digging up some information available online about the series, it turns out there’s a lot to discuss here. Underneath the surface of John are some strange ideas, dramatized in a few ways that are very Milch, and others that go beyond his comfort zone.
Milch’s public comments indicate he has no use for the internet, but one of the core ideas of the series revolves around online communication and its potential to change how we relate to one another. For a show airing in 2007, it’s actually ahead of its time in terms of thinking about the internet and using it as a means of advancing a story from a different medium.
Not only did HBO’s official site host blog posts from the show’s writers, offering guidance to viewers through the series’ run, but two websites were also established to help promote the series. Yostclan.com (a fictional fansite devoted to the family we see updated by a minor character on the series) and Stinkweed.com (the fake “official” site of the surfing gear company that once had a promotional deal with the Yost family) were updated every Sunday, offering hints about future episodes and expounding on the themes of the series. (Yostclan.com is gone, and someone unrelated to the show has since purchased Stinkweed's domain.)
This type of marketing was extremely rare at the time, and it’s possible John is the first series to quietly have websites working in concert with the narrative; not publicly announcing updates, but serving the needs of the series’ most devoted viewers.
The Cavalcade of Affordable Stars
Another attempt at playing with the narrative comes with the casting choices. Every episode of the show features a well-known actor famous for a specific part; Milch uses the public’s perception of the actor to either exploit their typecasting or radically shift against it. There’s also an acknowledgement of coziness here, as the audience is treated with return visits from people they’re comfortable seeing in their homes, serving a narrative that probably doesn’t belong on commercial television.
Luke Perry is Linc Stark, a ridiculously phony name in service of a shallow branding expert who’s made his living off the SoCal surf scene. Rebecca DeMornay (who has top billing, because the credits are in alphabetical order) is the blonde babe who’s now the grandmother of a fourteen-year-old, lashing out at the world because she can’t face her own self-loathing. Howard Hesseman plays a guru of the elder Yosts from their LSD days, a winking reference to his life as Dr. Johnny Fever on a different series that also referenced Cincinnati in its name. Mark-Paul Gosselaar even appears as Linc’s second-in-command, giving ‘90s kids the Saved by the Bell/90210 crossover they never thought possible.
Milch acknowledges his own sense of comfort by having Ed O’Neill play a caricatured version of his friend Det. Bill Clark, the spiritual father of NYPD Blue. And of course someone from Deadwood has to pop up each episode, because somehow HBO thought they could market this series as that show’s spiritual successor. Even though Milch isn’t one given to meta-commentary, he has confirmed that these connections were very much intentional.
The Guy from Cincinnati
Connecting every figure on the series is John Monad, the childlike mystery man who arrives on the beach one day, offering cryptic messages to the cast that expose their inner hurting and allow them to begin the path of redemption. “Monad” is a reference to a philosophy relating to the concept of a “first being, divinity, or the totality of all beings,” the last name given to John on his credit card, which magically provides his new friend Butchie anything he needs at the convenience store.
Referred to as a “human parrot,” most of John’s lines consist of him repeating what’s already been said to him, automatically answering any question in the affirmative. That’s why he’s “John from Cincinnati” -- Butchie asks if he’s from “Cincinnati or something” and John answers that he’s from Cincinnati. (The initials of JC led some viewers to speculate John’s another incarnation of Jesus Christ, others questioned if his first name was an allusion to John the Baptist.)
John rarely appears as the direct source of the miracles surrounding the cast, but it’s obvious that just being around John causes strange things to happen. (Mitch begins floating after their brief encounter, Butchie finds he’s free of heroin addiction, Shaun’s broken neck is healed after he’s “kissed” by one of Bill’s parrots.) As the episodes unfold, John has a cryptic message to send the country: 9-11-14 is coming, and America must be ready. This is never made explicit in the show, but the idea is that America’s reaction to 9-11-01 is going to trigger an even more severe terrorist attack on that date, unless something is done to heal the world in the meantime. (Some fans searched for a more explicit theological message in the numbers, consulting the verses of John 9:11-14, which describes Jesus healing a blind man.)
Obviously, the show rests on this character, and the question of just how to dramatize someone committing miracles in the modern day is tricky, so crafting John couldn’t have been easy. Austin Nichols (who, for some reason, I didn’t recognize at all on The Walking Dead) plays John as a harmless, lost kid, which easily could’ve become irritating, but Nichols actually finds a way to make it difficult to dislike John. In terms of his portrayal, he’s more Mork from Ork than any recognizable religious figure, usually offering tiny, seemingly inconsequential statements that steer the cast in the directions they need to go. And any frustration with John’s opaque messages is dramatized well by Luke Perry’s character, who eventually sits the space cadet down and attempts to parse out line by line what the ---- he’s talking about.
“I know of nothing else but miracles.”
Another attempt at playing with the narrative comes in the form of Milch questioning the very nature of storytelling. This was on his mind when Deadwood was cancelled, expounding in one of the DVD features on the audience’s expectations of an ending, which plays into the phony process of crafting a narrative in the first place. Milch seemed almost dismissive of story construction then, calling it a means of assembling coincidences, pretending they’re not coincidences, and threading the events together into a story. Every event in John from Cincinnati is such an outrageous coincidence, there’s no rational way to justify its existence. The thread connecting each aspect of the story has to be accepted as a miracle, which conforms to Milch’s apparent philosophy that people choose to see events as coincidences instead of God’s plan.
More philosophy that has essentially nothing to do with surfing comes in the show’s exploration of the concept of art. Milch’s belief is that God is able to communicate with man only after the species develops art, the idea (as far as I understand) being that art enables man to appreciate abstract thought, and once man has reached that level of thinking, he can begin to understand the larger theological issues relating to his existence. Art also enables man to communicate with his fellow man, the artist reaching someone he might have no obvious similarities to, even while relating thoughts on the common human experience. (Eradicating the superficial barriers between humans is another theme of the series.)
The internet plays into this thought, with digital 1s and 0s taking the place of primitive man’s cave paintings, and the titular character taking advantage of this technology to spread a new gospel. These ideas are illustrated in the series’ most famous moment (within the tiny cult audience for the show, of course), John’s own “sermon on the mount” in the parking lot of the Snug Harbor hotel. The original moment from the show can be viewed here and Milch’s behind-the-scenes explanation of the sermon can be seen in this clip. If you’re diving into the series, this information will hopefully lessen some of the confusion that surrounded the initial airing of John.
With the philosophy of the series established, in the next installment, I’ll attempt to examine the actual narrative and determine how well it served its creator’s lofty vision.