16 November, 2008
This drama about three generations of famous surfers is what HBO hoped would replicate the success of The Sopranos but unfortunately it' proved to be a big flop.
It's brought to us by David Milch who gave us Deadwood and surf-noir author Kem Nunn, who also has a Deadwood writing credit. Milch is revered in some quarters but non-naturalistic dialogue and unlikeable characters isn't enough for me. There were fans enthusiastically speculating and interpreting what it could all possibly mean but couldn't that mystery be combined with good story-telling?
I really don't mind being made to think, my love of The Wire is testament to that - the show gave me headaches - but John from Cincinnati just wasn't worth the effort. Rather than hidden depths revealing itself it mostly remained shallow and self-indulgent.
The opening of episode 1 was deliberately obtuse and while Paul Schrader said "an audience will rather be confused than bored", I was both. Sure, Milch is a maverick and a rebel but when you lose two-thirds of your audience between episode 1 and 2 then maybe you have to re-think that rebellious maverickness.
The only likeable character is the younger surfer dude, which actually isn't a problem. I hated most of The Sopranos characters, for instance, but I was made to care about what happened to them. By going the non-naturalistic route and by the characters being simply mouthpieces in the debate about surfing being too commercial, they are difficult to identify with. But give those same characters Milch and Nunn have created to another showrunner and I suspect it could have been brilliant as there is, frustratingly, some potential there.
And that's another thing, the 'prophet not profit' shtick was getting on my wick. Who really cares about surfing being too commercial? One of the major issues of the series was will the bad sponsors give the younger surfer dude money. The suspense was not exactly killing me.
My surfing days are behind me but I can keep up with what's going on by watching championships from all over the world on telly. That wouldn't be possible without sponsorship. It's especially galling coming from a multi-millionaire working in television as it could be argued that television is too commercial. If I was actually any good at surfing I would love to have been paid to do that and travel around the world.
The second episode was a slight improvement and more interesting things happened but there was never any sense that the main problem in the episode was a real problem and the ending was totally predictable - even for non-writers. It puzzles me how a life and death story can be made so dull. The style sucks all the dramatic tension out. Drama should be dramatic.
The concept is fundamentally flawed and I couldn't imagine the show getting a UK buyer but FX has eventually taken the risk. I predicted its cancellation after watching the pilot but the show does have its fans so I would urge you to make your own mind up and watch the pilot at least.
I'm not a fan of Milch's writing, I admit, but good episodes from Alix Lambert, Abby Gewanter and Wayne Loren Wilson later in the series showed that the show could have been great with less Milch involvement and a better writing team. But it was Milch's ball and he got to play.
John From Cincinnati
FX, Sundays 10:00pm
from 16 November for 10 episodes.