(HBO MAX) Sadly, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI has been mired in controversy due to many DEADWOOD fans blaming it for their favorite show being canceled, as DEADWOOD creator David Milch put it on pause to pursue this oddity, and then HBO canceled both shows. While they’re probably not wrong — it’s complicated — JOHN FROM CINCINNATI deserves a better legacy than that.

JOHN was the creation of David Milch and renowned ‘surf noir’ author Kem Nunn, and I believe it’s best described as a quintessentially American spiritual surf journey. It’s focused around a being who speaks in riddles, who inserts himself into a surfing dynasty family (Mitch, Cissy, Butchie, and Shaun Yost), and the quirky characters drawn into the family’s orbit.

Milch retains his standard ‘every episode encapsulates a day’ structure and leans even more heavily into his lyrical prose, often in an intentionally obtuse way that can either delight or frustrate. Here’s an excerpt of a lengthy monologue delivered by John from a scene near the end of the sixth episode:

“If my words are yours, can you hear my father? Can Bill know my father keeping his eye on me? Can I bone Kai and Butchie know my father instead? My father’s shy doing his business. Kai helps my father dump out. Bill takes a shot! Shaunie is much improved. Joe is a doubting Thomas. Joe will not say Aleman. Joe will bring his buddies home. This is how Freddie relaxes. Cup of joe and Winchell’s variety dozen. Mitch catches a good wave. Mitch wipes out. Mitch wipes out Cissy. Cissy shows Butchie how to do that. Cissy wipes Butchie out. Butchie hurts Barry’s hand. Mr. Rollins comes in Barry’s face. My father runs the Mega Millions.”*

If you rolled your eyes at the exposition-dump above, this is not the show for you. It’s an incredibly idiosyncratic, overly theatrical, dark but not bleak show about people struggling to find hope, or at least that’s my read on it. I hesitate to say this, since it seems obvious, but the closest parallel is TWIN PEAKS, although it doesn’t lean so much on heightened melodrama and lacks a lot of PEAKS’ humor, but it’s just as thoughtful and a rich mine, if you’re willing to dig into it.

The cast is a murderers’ row of Hollywood talent and long-lasting character actors: Rebecca De Mornay, Bruce Greenwood, Luis Guzmán, Ed O’Neill (doing some MVP work acting alongside a number of birds), Garret Dillahunt, Jim Beaver, Stephen Tobolowsky, Dayton Callie — the list goes on.

Yes, DEADWOOD is a fucking masterpiece, but if you’re not afraid of some strange, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI will reward you.

  • There’s behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of that scene, which is a rare glimpse into Milch’s directing style:

There’s also a music video shaped from the monologue, which is actually not nearly as weird as the closing scenes themselves.