"John" carries a double burden. Not only is it following the finale of one of the most revered shows in TV history (will anyone be in the mood for a new drama right after "Sopranos" ends?), but it's been accused, however unfairly, as being responsible for killing another all-time great.
"John from Cincinnati," you see, is The Show That Killed "Deadwood," since HBO claimed producer Milch was so excited to do his new show that he didn't have time for the old one. The truth is closer to "John" being a convenient alibi for the cancellation of the expensive, modestly- rated "Deadwood," but when the legend becomes fact, we print the legend.
"John" would have to be at least the equal of "Deadwood," if not better, to overcome its early reputation, and it's not. It's an odd little show, often more David Lynch than David Milch, and after three episodes I'm still not sure I understand it all.
The short version (relatively): in the town of Imperial Beach, Calif., lives the Yost family, a legendary surfing clan. Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) was a star in the '70s who retired after a knee injury, and now finds himself floating a few inches off the ground at random intervals. Son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) revolutionized the sport -- or so we're told, since the few glimpses we get of him on a board don't make him look substantially different or better than anyone else -- be fore becoming a heroin junkie. That left the care of Butchie's son Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) to Mitch and wife Cissy (Rebecca DeMornay).
Into the middle of the Yosts and their extended circle of friends and family -- which includes retired cop Bill (Ed O'Neill), motel manager Ramon (Luis Guzman), attorney Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson) and shady surfing promoter Linc (Luke Perry) -- enters the title character (Austin Nichols), a childlike stranger with magic pockets and other unusual abilities who's either supposed to be Jesus Christ or an alien, I'm not sure which. There's also a resurrecting parakeet that has the power to heal others. It's that kind of show.
In the early going, the hints about John's identity lead more to the Christ theory: the series' initials; John introducing himself by saying, "The end is near"; his briefly granting a friend psychic powers by instructing her to "see God," plus the fact that surfing and levitation are two different ways to walk on water. But the character as written seems more like Jeff Bridges in "Starman," a quiet innocent learning how to be human by adopting the speech patterns of those around him. (Almost everything he says is quoting another character.)
As with "Deadwood," the focus is on a community at the edge of civilization (Imperial Beach is the at the extreme southwest corner of the continental U.S.), filled with people incapable of functioning anyplace else. The dialogue is in Milch's familiar curlicue blend of the sacred and the profane -- in one of the more printable moments, Bill exclaims, "I tell you, I don't know anymore if I'm on foot or horseback, or if a bird's alive or dead." -- and many of the actors are members of Milch's traveling repertory company. (O'Neill was the star of the short-lived CBS cop show "Big Apple," Guzman and Garson both had recurring roles on "NYPD Blue," and "Deadwood" regulars Jim Beaver, Dayton Callie and Garret Dillahunt all pop up in small roles.)
But where "Deadwood" had a clear sense of purpose and several indelible characters (notably Ian McShane's ruthless saloon keeper Al Swearengen) right from the jump, "John" takes a laid- back approach to its early episodes, wandering from character to character without bothering to explain what they're about or why you should care. Guzman's and Garson's characters start out as a kind of Greek chorus, then get sucked into what feels like an entirely separate story involving a gay lottery winner and a haunted motel room. (Again, it's that kind of show.)
Six months ago, HBO screened a "John" trailer for critics. Afterwards, a few of us gathered around Milch, and he asked us what we thought of it.
"I'm not sure I understood it," said one.
"That's okay," he assured her. "You're not supposed to."
Milch is a genius, but with genius comes eccentricity, and "John" feels like far too eccentric a show to launch on the heels of the "Sopranos" farewell.
What did everybody else think?