Email Roundtable #29 – John From Cincinnati

This week on the roundtable we continue with our Summer Television Secret Santa. Jane gifted the short-lived HBO show, John From Cincinnati, to Kerri. Below is their conversation about the show.

john-from-cincinnati

Jane: JFC is an intimidating show to jump into. It might be a good idea to start with a brief summary about what the show is about (this is kind of a mean way to start off, I know).

Kerri: I made Katie do the same thing so it’s only fair.

A strange young man named John Monad shows up in the surfing community of Imperial Beach, California and befriends the celebrated surf family, the Yost’s. As John interacts with various people in the community, strange and mystical things start happening.

And it’s about religion.

How’s that?

Jane: I’d say that’s a pretty great start. I don’t know if I could have been as succinct! So the show has a lot going on. What were your initial impressions of the pilot? Did it intrigue you to want to keep watching or was it a bit of a challenge to push forward?

Kerri: I have watched David Milch’s other shows, Deadwood and Luck. I was certainly a Deadwood fan but Luck didn’t do much for me. JFC is an odd show, similar in some ways to both Deadwood and Luck but very, very different in other ways. It contains those lengthy monologues and strange speech patterns (everyone kind of sounds like a cowboy Yoda) that Deadwood and Luck were known for but it also has these supernatural elements that pierce through the naturalistic setting every so often.

JFC straddles a line between a David Milch show I like (Deadwood) and a David Milch show that I don’t like (Luck). There was certainly enough in the pilot to keep me interested. Who is John Monad and where did he come from, of course, being the central intriguing mystery. It was only after the pilot where things became tiresome for me. I say that while also liking the show quite a bit.

Jane: That is an interesting response to me because I have not seen Luck and I didn’t make it through Deadwood (couldn’t get past the violence). The speech patterns were immediately off-putting for me as I didn’t feel like the actors always connected with what they were saying. It sometimes seemed forced. That being said, I thought there were some wonderfully naturalistic moments and the performances were pretty amazing. What made things tiresome for you?

Kerri: I completely agree with you about the dialogue making the actors really have to work at connecting with the material.

After a while I found the show to be repetitive. How many times can Shaun Yost go missing without anyone noticing? How many times does Cissy, Shaun’s grandmother and primary caregiver (played by Rebecca De Mornay), need to shout her dialogue (apparently all of the times)? Why is there hardly any surfing on a show about surfing?

All that said, I think there are lovely things about the show too. John is a wonderful character and the guy who plays him, Austin Nichols, strikes the right balance of blankness and profundity. I’d also watch Garret Dillahunt (the guy who plays Dr. Michael Smith) in just about anything (to be specific, I think he needs to be on Justified). Additionally, there are some beautiful shots in the show. I’m thinking specifically of a weird and beautiful shot of Shaun listening to the sounds of an argument taking place in the kitchen while he lies in bed.

What were some of your favorite moments in the show?

Jane: I completely agree about Cissy. One of my favorite scenes in the pilot is the argument between her and Mitch. It is so intimate and earthy that I had high hopes for some amazing scenes between Bruce Greenwood and Rebecca De Mornay. Sadly there was only the one.

I agree that there was not that much surfing on the show. It struck me that JFC treats surfing as a similar addiction to drugs. Like it’s almost better in your mind than in reality. I wonder if that had anything to do with it?

Any scene with John is a highlight for me. I especially like to watch Butchie and John interact with each other. Butchie who tries so hard to be rough around the edges has a wonderful tenderness with John. It’s a great contrast to his relationship with Shaun, his son (in the early episodes). I was also fascinated with Greyson Fletcher who played Shaun. He is a professional surfer who (according to IMDB) has not acted before or since. His dialogue always came out a little wobbly but he had has the most genuine face that you believed everything he said. It was a great casting choice. I found that the show was always striking interesting balances like that. You touched on that a bit when you mentioned the supernatural elements piercing through the naturalistic setting. Did you want to expand on that? Did the supernatural bits work for you?

Kerri: First off, I want to say that Greyson Fletcher does (or did at the time anyway) have the most amazing face. He’s usually pretty blank – a lot like John in that way – and his dialogue is always pretty stilted in sort of a similar way to John. I’m not certain that this was a choice or if it was the result of not having a strong actor in the role. I’d like to think it was the former. There are all these doubles and multiples on the show and John and Shaun are definitely meant to be similar in some regard. Shaun and John are both Jesus-y figures, clearly.

To expand a bit on the supernatural elements in the show: in short, yes, they worked for me. In fact, whenever a supernatural or strange thing was happening I was transfixed. Often they actually worked better for me than the more naturalistic parts of the show. I had ABSOLUTELY no idea what was going on but I found them engrossing. It was almost like in these moments I was hypnotized (in some of the more naturalistic moments I will admit to checking Twitter).

Jane: I also enjoyed the spiritual moments. I especially loved Mitch Yost levitating. I will take this opportunity to mention how much I love Bruce Greenwood. He could be in everything and I’d be quite happy. I love how they cast the most natural actor to sporadically float about the house. Now here’s a loaded question. What was your take on the supernatural moments in the show? What is going on in that crazy little town?

Kerri: I also quite liked Bruce Greenwood although he was quite obviously underused. I don’t know what to make of his absence halfway through the season. What did you think of that?I’m not sure what to say about the supernatural elements beyond what I’ve already said. I don’t have a very good explanation for them. I was taken with them but I really do not know what they mean or do I think we are really meant to know anything at season’s end. I do think Milch wanted us to speculate but I don’t think he wanted us to have any concrete explanation, if that makes any sense. I found the best thing to do with this show was not to worry too much about all of that but instead let them flow around you. I think it you want explanations from this show you’d be insanely frustrated. Don’t you think?

Graeme and I did come up with the theory that maybe John is actually Twitter. I’m sure all of his statements were under 140 characters.

I am interested in your theory about surfing as an addiction. Would you mind expanding on that? I never thought of that at all.

Jane: While I sure don’t think we are supposed have anything close to a concrete explanation for the strange occurrences in Imperial Beach I think it’s fun to speculate. Also, I asked why many times while watching. We took the show in differently, I guess. I really love mysteries and trying to figure them out. I would, of course be disappointed if I ever got to the bottom of it. I certainly agree that we aren’t meant to know anything at the season’s end as it was cancelled prematurely.

I really love your theory about John being Twitter. That is hilarious. I feel that because the bulk of what John says is repetition from what he’s heard from the people around him people are taking great meaning from their own words. What I came away with, from the show, is that spirituality is a deeply personal thing and sometimes you project your own feelings or ideals onto some great being to give yourself meaning (which I don’t think is a bad thing at all). When miracles occur everyone assumes they are meant for them and look for “signs” that these occurrences are personal.

I just saw your other question pop up so I will elaborate on the surfing addiction theory here as well. What I meant was that for some of the characters like Shaun, Kai and John surfing seems deeply personal. Others are more addicted to the lifestyle of being a surfer like Linc Stark (played by Luke Perry) and Butchie. It is easier for them to talk about how amazing it is to surf rather than to face the water and not feel as connected to it as they should. I may be projecting something that isn’t there. I wasn’t a fan of Linc as a character so I often questioned his motives. What are you thoughts on Linc?

Kerri: There are a lot of things I’d like to expand on here.

For one, I agree, we definitely watched the show a bit differently and I think you have more experience when it comes to mysteries than I do. I’m terrible at solving mysteries so usually it’s easier for me to just not try (it’s partial laziness, I’m sure). I think it’s interesting that you would never want things to be explained in a very concrete kind of way and, although I think we are watching differently, we both agree on this point. Especially on a show about spirituality where things are deeply personal and completely individual, to have a definite answer would ring false. I love what you say about people assuming the miracles are happening just for them. That’s such a selfish and deeply human way of looking at the world and I think it is so true of all of the characters on the show.

My assumption of the surfing sections of the show was a bit more obvious. I thought it was more Christ symbolism – surfers look like they can walk on water – and it worked for me on that level. I am sure there is something to both of our theories. I think that surfing as addiction works because for so many of these people surfing has essentially ruined them or crippled them. They desperately want to get back to what surfing used to be – simple, innocent, beautiful (this is what Shaun is too!) – but now they associate it with drugs and injury and they have trouble looking at it in any other way.

And all of that connects with Linc Stark who had a hand in Butchie’s path to drugs. I also questioned Linc’s motives and I didn’t quite understand what he was up to most of the time. His relationship with Tina (Shaun’s mother and now porn star) was strange and I’m not actually sure if it was entirely necessary. I feel like the show wanted him to be more than a total sleaze ball but it never really translated. Similarly, Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s character functioned in the exact same way – like exact, exact. They were clearly supposed to be mirrors of each other but I’m not entirely sure why.

I do find it interesting that Milch cast so many actors who were known for a single past performance.

Jane: Ok, here’s a wacky idea I had on the bus ride to work today. I’m not quite convinced it even makes sense but here goes. You mentioned that Shaun and John had this great mix of blank and penetrating, I wonder if they were cast so that other characters and even the viewer can project whatever they want onto a blank canvas. That would be the ideal way to be spiritual (for me anyways). Luke Perry and Mark-Paul Gosselaar being actors known for a single past performance, kinda like Jesus. There is no room for interpretation or even deeper questioning. They are already defined. Maybe that’s the less ideal way of looking at spirituality.

So now that my brain is all twisty I think I’ll sign off on this discussion. Any other thoughts from you, Kerri?

Kerri: I truly love that idea, Jane, and I definitely think you are on to something there. I think I’m going to go ahead and decide that’s exactly right, if you don’t mind.

There is a lot more I’d like to discuss with you about JFC: The amazing scenes between Cass and John in her hotel room; the glorious opening sequence (if there wasn’t enough surfing in the show proper it was made up for in the opening credits); what was going on in the creepy scenes at the motel bar and, really, what the heck was going on with all of the characters that populated the motel?; why were almost all of the women blonde? (more doubling, tripling and quadrupling?); or the way that every interior was so dark and dreary, windows all closed up, with these slivers of blinding light coming through.

But, I think I’ll end where the show ends. There is an absolutely knock-out scene at the end of the last episode where Bill, played by Ed O’Neil (yep, Al Bundy) finally goes to his upstairs bedroom loft which has been converted into a hospice area for his now deceased wife. Let me say right now that, while watching the show, Bill was a problematic character for me. In this scene he finally is able to say all of the things he wants to say to his wife and give her an update on what has been going on with him. Up to this point, Bill has been communicating with his pet birds (that seem to have telepathic powers) on the main floor of his house. What is striking about this scene is that there is no pretence. Bill is talking to his dead wife. He knows she’s dead. He doesn’t see a mystical representation of her in front of him (it’s just the bed). He doesn’t pretend she is alive and he has no illusions that she is coming back to him (despite seeing Shaun come back to life earlier in the season). He doesn’t hear her respond to him like he does with his birds. Bill has a moment of acceptance. It is a moment of spirituality so real and honest that I think transcends some of the more obvious spiritual/supernatural moments on the show. The last episode poetic and beautiful in its entirety but here is a scene, finally, where I could see the impact that John/Jesus/God/Love/Life/Death/whateveryouwannacallit has had on this man. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and acting. I loved it.

So thanks, Jane, for gifting me this notoriously challenging show. It was, at times, difficult to get through but it was rewarding nonetheless and certainly incredibly fun to talk to you about. I want to share this fantastic and exhaustive article with you, before I sign off, in case your brain stops being twisty and you feel like thinking about the show some more.

But to really answer your question, “I don’t know, Butchie instead”.

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