16 November, 2008

Preview: "John From Cincinnati"

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.


Trishah said...

We have an active group of Monad-istas (our term for fans of JOHN) over on the HBO boards at:


We also have a fan site at: http://www.SaveJFC.net We would love to have you stop by so we can share our insights of the show with you... and we LOVE to hear what others think, too.

Looking forward to chatting with you!

Cissyyost said...

Adding my bit to Trishah's post, really hope you all will come to our forums and talk about the show as you are watching and wondering!!
I look forward to meeting you new to JFC people!!
Please, come visit us at the sites Trishah has posted!

JimmyTwoNutz said...

Roll a fatty sit back and enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Amazing series....amazing music


1. "Johnny Appleseed" - Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Main title/theme song
2. "The Perfect Ending" - Harriet Street
3. "Goin' Up The Country" - Canned Heat - Episode 101: Vietnam Joe in van
4. "Sun/Rise/Light/Flies" - Kasabian - Episode 101: Closing credits
5. "Tic" - Kava Kava - Episode 102: Shaun prepares for competition
6. "Staring at the Sun" - TV On The Radio - Episode 102: Closing credits
7. "Time To Say Goodbye" - Sarah Brightman - Episode 103: Freddie in his car outside the hospital
8. "You Light Up My Life" - Debby Boone - Episode 103: Barry recalls what happened in Room 24
9. "Boogie Chillen" - Buddy Guy - Episode 103: John says "See God Kai" and trippy montage ensues
10. "Feeling Good" - Muse - Episode 103: Closing credits, Shaun on halfpipe after Dr. Smith says "I'm so...happy!"
11. "Unisono" - Control Machete - Episode 104: John gets in the van before 'the stare-down'
12. "Un Di Felice, Eterea" - David Byrne - Episode 104: Vietnam Joe finds John, John signals Cass
13. "In Your Eyes" - Peter Gabriel - Episode 104: Kai reminds Butchie of their Jr Prom
14. "Over, Under, Sideways, Down" - The Yardbirds - Episode 104: Closing credits
15. "Tonights The Night" - The Shirelles - Episode 105: Butchie and Tina in diner
16. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" - Elvis Costello - Episode 105: Closing credits
17. "And When I Die" - Laura Nyro - Episode 106: Freddie & Bill
18. "My Favorite Things" - John Coltrane - Episode 106: Closing credits
19. "Watching The Wheels" - Matisyahu - Episode 107: Closing credits
20. "Tennessee Waltz" - Patti Page - Episode 108: Barry has vision in bar
21. "When Love Comes To Town" - U2 - Episode 108: Closing credits
22. "Hold On, I'm Coming" - Sam & Dave - Episode 109: Closing credits
23. "Series of Dreams" - Bob Dylan - Episode 110: Opening scene w/clouds and John & Shaun's return, surfing in together