One can't help but wonder if writer David Milch has gone completely 'round the bend with his latest creation, HBO's John from Cincinnati (10 p.m. tomorrow). Milch was the brilliant writer on NYPD Blue who teased the demons out of Andy Sipowicz, using his own addictions as inspiration. He created and wrote the profanity-laced HBO Western Deadwood, a masterpiece of acting and dialogue that made the foulest curses sound almost poetic.
John is odder still. Viewers who tune out of the series premiere, airing after the finale of The Sopranos this weekend, can be excused for their impatience with this drama about a clan of Southern California surfers, one of whom levitates a few inches off the ground for no apparent reason, and a blank-slate boy - the John of the title - who turns up one day to parrot what those around him say.
The first half-hour of the premiere is strangely disconnected. Even after a confrontation that pulls disparate groups of characters together, John still sometimes smacks of weird for weirdness' sake (Twin Peaks fans, rejoice!). But after a while, even that sense begins to evaporate and three episodes in, I started to buy into the world Milch has created. I don't understand it, I don't think I even really like it (almost all of the characters are damaged and rather unpleasant), but I am intrigued by it. (Enough to keep watching? We'll see.)
Set in Imperial Beach, Calif., John focuses on the Yost family: Patriarch Mitch (Bruce Greenwood), the guy who levitates, and wife Cissy (Rebecca DeMornay) are legal guardians of 13-year-old surfing prodigy Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) because his father, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), is a drugged-out bum who squats in a hotel that's been recently sold to a lottery winner (Matt Winston).
Others who hover around the family include ex-cop Bill (Ed O'Neill), owner of a bird that can restore life to the brain dead; a stereotypically haunted Vietnam Vet (Jim Beaver), and surf entrepreneur Linc (Luke Perry), who, with the help of associate Cass (Emily Rose), is trying to sign Shaun to a surfing contract.
Into this mix wanders John (Austin Nichols), who claims in episode two to be from Cincinnati, which seems unlikely. John tells anyone who will listen that "The end is near" and encourages others to "See God," but mostly he just repeats the words, intonations, and gestures of those around him, who speculate that he's either mentally challenged or an otherworldly alien of the naive, innocent variety.
Milch partnered with "surf noir" novelist Kem Nunn to create John, but the dialogue is pure Milch, riddled with profanities of the coarsest nature. Deadwood fans will be heartened by the presence of several actors from that series, but they may also be disappointed to discover that, like TV writer
Aaron Sorkin, Milch has a habit of using his singular voice and putting it in the mouths of every character. Most of them speak in the same, peculiar Milchian rhythms using a vocabulary long on words that can't be printed here and short on variety.
What does John add up to? What's Milch trying to say? Beats me. At a January press conference, he alluded to the notion that "reality is a shifting and elusive condition" and that he was interested in exploring "the margins of things." Early episodes give a hint of the paranormal and spiritual, but so far there's no explanation for Mitch's levitation or John's background.
That leaves us with a strange show that features some impressive surfing scenes, nutty Milchian characters, and a lot of head scratching.
Two dramas that premiered last year return for their second seasons, and in their season premieres, both manage to avoid a sophomore slump.
Curious eyes will be looking to HBO's post-Sopranos future with Sunday's debut of John From Cincinnati, but fans of compelling character dramas are advised not to withhold big love for HBO's Big Love at 9 p.m. Monday.
HBO has attempted to expand its original programming to Mondays before, with lackluster results (Six Feet Under attempted to gain a foothold on Monday in 2005 before scurrying back to Sunday), so this time the network is taking a smart precaution: Love episodes will debut at 9 p.m. Monday and replay the following Sunday at 8 p.m., giving the show a presence in the familiar HBO Sunday-night, original-series block.
Anything that gives viewers more opportunities to find this unique but easily accessible drama is fine by me. Although the story of a polygamous (not mainstream Mormons) Utah family is going to be fairly adult by nature (there are occasional sex scenes), Big Love characters are not likely to curse a blue streak - "Jiminy Crickets!" is about as profane as the first episode gets.
The series performs a deft balancing act, creating sympathetic characters in a nontraditional family that viewers care about while making polygamy look like a much bigger relationship headache than any two-person union.
"The life we've chosen leads to eternity," husband Bill (Bill Paxton) tells first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), "but there are consequences."
Season one ended with the Hendrickson family exposed as polygamists. Barb was denied a mother-of-the-year award. Second wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) attempted to console Barb, but as season two begins two weeks later, she remains inconsolable, even spending nights away from the three homes she shares with Bill, her sister wives, and the family's seven children.
Adding to the family's headaches are continuing entanglements with evil polygamist compound leader Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), Nicki's father and Bill's nemesis. At the end of last season, Bill's sister-in-law, Wanda (Melora Walters), poisoned Roman's secretly gay son, Alby (Matt Ross), who now wants revenge, and not necessarily on his father's terms.
It sounds complicated, but the characters are so distinct and the performances so uniformly excellent (especially Sevigny as forever bitter and incensed Nicki) that the plot pieces fall into place with ease.
In addition to the new episodes, three mini-sodes (about four minutes each) are available at HBO.com. These episodes, set before the start of season one, fill in some background on the wives and their relationships both to Bill and one another. Viewers also see how the space constraints of a single home led the three wives to live in three side-by-side houses.
ABC Family's hit series about a bellybutton-less boy returns at 8 p.m. Monday, answering plenty of first-season questions right away (no dragging out the mystery for this show). Smart move.
When viewers last saw Kyle (Matt Dallas), he had met Adam Baylin (J. Eddie Peck), who appeared to be an older version of Kyle. The "Is Kyle a clone?" question gets resolved early on as the teen with amazing abilities learns about his past from Baylin while missing the Trager family that took him in last year.
They miss him, too, moping around their Seattle home. Mom Nicole (Marguerite MacIntyre) sees a shrink and daughter Lori (April Matson) finds her one-time bad boy beau, Declan (Chris Olivero), is so busy brooding that he has little time to get frisky with her. Hmmm.
Kyle XY has always been a welcome mix of mystery and family drama, but it veered too far toward the former at the end of last season. This season premiere readjusts the delicate story balance, resetting the story to coax fans back to this light, engaging series.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.
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