It’s the longest-awaited sequel since Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull and probably just as underwhelming. The promise of a second part that never comes is one that resonates with what I’m going to talk about here, David Milch’s follow-up to Deadwood at HBO John from Cincinnati, which along with Luck lasted one season and is now freely available to stream on Amazon Prime Instant Video as part of their HBO collection – designed, no doubt, to take the edge off the company’s flagrant employee abuse. This is the David Milch series that means the most to me.
There are plenty of TV shows that have put places on the map. But what about the shows that failed to make their locations famous? Breaking Bad made Alberquerque a hub of tourism and yet John from Cincinnati did not do the same for Imperial Beach, a coastal community south of San Diego bordering Mexico, in which the series is exclusively set. Perversely, tourism has come to Imperial Beach without the help of John from Cincinnati only a few years after the series aired. And, to rub sea-salt in the wound, Imperial Beach attracted visitors by projecting an image contrary to the one presented in John from Cincinnati. Imagine Hobbiton becoming overrun with people only after a brutalist tower block was erected in the centre of downton (which is what I’m presuming they call downtown in Middle Earth). I know this not because I’m a good journalist but a resident.
Of San Diego, that is. But I did live in Imperial Beach briefly a couple of years ago when I first arrived in the states. Though on an upswing even then, the community felt more like the faded surfer haunt gently harbouring drug addicts and derelict motels that is depicted in John from Cincinnati than it does today. Now it is a prime beach destination replete with upscale hotels and restaurants. Apart from the most inconspicuous memorabilia in a few local establishments, there’s no sense that a TV show was ever filmed here, and certainly not as recently. I’d like to attribute that to the thoroughly dysfunctional portrayal of Imperial Beach, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. After all, Breaking Bad made Alberquerque famous not attractive. Despite the esteemed creator and network, John from Cincinnati was not liked or known enough to front a campaign for tourism.
It’s depressingly easy to see why the show was not embraced. It is aggressively cryptic, with titular John not a protagonist in the conventional sense but a conduit who precipitates the actions of other characters and speaks only in the words of those he encounters. John is not human, or at least not mortal in the way we understand it. Others have unsubstantiated mystical ability. The writing and acting is egregiously ornate and portentous, even for a David Milch drama. In particular, Rebecca DeMornay proves herself the missing link between the Lifetime school of TV movie acting and the televisual avant-garde. On the other hand, it seems like John from Cincinnati is punished for the strangeness we conversely admire in shows like Twin Peaks. Milch’s previous drama Deadwood was universally praised, and yet was similarly impenetrable, but because it was linguistically rather than conceptually challenging, it was somehow more acceptable.
Coming after Deadwood may have been John from Cincinnati’s greatest error. Milch’s fanbase scapegoated the show for taking Deadwood off the air after only three seasons and – as I’m sure Nic Pizzolatto and David Simon will testify – critics have only one use for shows that follow TV of wide acclaim. I don’t want to be a John from Cincinnati apologist; at times it is too pretentious for its own good, and it would be hypocritical of me to boycott Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who for its incoherence and not at least mention it here. Much of my interest in the show is strictly geographical, although that does help me understand its intentions better than someone who’s never experienced Imperial Beach would. It is, however, one of the few shows I can’t think that transcends classification. You’ll have a hard time relating this to any format or genre of television out there.
John from Cincinnati is undoubtedly hard work, but if it’s elision of norms is not reward enough for you, then maybe its peerless cast, all of whom are given monologues equalling the best of Milch’s writing, should be. Among them are character giants Ed O’Neill, Dayton Callie and Jim Beaver.