John from Cincinnati: The Complete First Season – DVD Review

Available at Amazon.com

It would be easy to assume that David Milch was going to have a rough time following up his brilliant HBO series Deadwood. A show as well written and emotional as his incredible Western series does not come around very often, and with the 1st season cancellation and lukewarm reviews of the creator’s follow-up, John from Cincinnati, writing off Milch’s second effort for the cable channel without even having seen it would almost be expected. This though, would be a terrible mistake for viewers that enjoy challenging, engaging material that tries to discuss large issues within humanity.

The series revolves around the Yost family, a family of surfing phenomenons, falling apart emotionally because of decades of self abuse and self absorption. The family patriarch, Mitch (Bruce Greenwood), is a man that had to give up his God-like status on the waves way too early because of a knee injury decades before, and while his physical scars of the event hamper him just a little, his scars after losing his most treasured ability haunt him into a life of trying to find meaning. His wife Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay) holds her own inner demons tightly, causing her to lash out at the one’s she loves the most, and driving most of them away in one form or another. Mitch’s oldest son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) looked to become Mitch’s successor, but only ended up a washed up heroine addict, squatting in a local run-down motel. Finally, young Shaun Yost (Greyson Fletcher) has to feel the pressure of wanting to carry on the family tradition, while his family argues about just how long they can try to shelter him from their own sordid fates.

All of their lives start to change the day that a mysterious stranger named John (Austin Nichols) appears on the shores of their hometown of Imperial Beach. The Yosts, as well as many of people in their lives, start to undergo fiercely personal events that begin to bring fourth the inner wounds that they carry with them. Miracles seem to happen on a daily basis. Baffling circumstances cause strangers to come together for a common purpose. Shrouds of mystery surround the family and their friends, while the innocently mannered John stands by idly watching.

John from Cincinnati is definitely not a show for everyone. At times, scenes will go into places that throw logic out the window, entering a Lynchian realm rarely seen on television, yet still with an emotional resonance that seems to stay true to the heart of the show. Also, much like it did in Deadwood, patience is often required while David Milch’s dialogue unfolds in unending monologues of an almost Shakespearean nature. Sometimes merely getting the gist of a scene is more important than understanding every individual sentence, as Milch is always able to make each individual sequence fascinating.

Acting on the show is also uniformly tremendous. Fans of Deadwood will enjoy seeing Milch’s regulars, such as Jim Beaver, Paula Malcomson, and Garret Dillahunt, all of which turn in performances that are not only memorable, but end up being one’s that are able to distance themselves from previous roles they played in varying degrees. The standout of the Deadwood alumni is probably Dayton Callie, who sheds the “aw shucks” attitude of his character Charlie Utter to become the more brooding and forceful Freddie Lopez, a lifelong criminal who has business dealings with Butchie. Callie shows this character from all angles, being the violent, short tempered crime boss we’re initially introduced to, then the next minute being a secretly concerned bystander, trying to make sense of the madness descending upon everyone around him.

Also quite welcome are the newcomers to Milch’s dialogue. Most especially, Ed O’Neil seems quite adept at wading through his lines, already a veteran of David Mamet projects. O’Neil shines in this series as Bill, a family friend of the Yosts who tries to protect both of Mitch’s prodigies. A retired cop, Bill puts up a huge macho front in the company of others, but shows real tenderness when in the privacy of his own home, desperate for the company of his long dead wife. Each member of the cast, including those portraying the Yost family as well as others on the show like Willie Garson and Luis Guzmán seem undaunted by what must have seemed like insurmountable teleplays on the page, and the final results are amazing.

To be honest, John from Cincinnati is a tough show to review. Often scenes that go completely off the wall or linger too long end up being vital to the show and never lose their entertainment value. It’s just so hard to get a hold on what the show is about, and yet it always stays so captivating that you don’t really care. In the end, the series is one that was just cut off too early to reach its full potential, but thanks to the immense talents of all involved, the show still winds up nearly touching greatness.

The show looks and sounds great in this three disc set from HBO. The “Johnny Appleseed” theme booms on the soundtrack for the disc with the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Also the show looks pretty much flawless, with vivid images populating every moment of the series. The show is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect of 1.66:1.

Episode Commentaries by Creator David Milch – Milch gives commentary tracks for the first and last episodes on the set. Both are pretty informative, but can also be frustrating. Milch is obviously a brilliant creator that has reasons for everything he does on a shoot, but he really likes to tell you EVERYTHING about those reasons. Unfortunately, for all the technical things he’ll expand upon, he doesn’t go into enough detail about what the show is really saying in some scenes to really make these tracks as worthwhile as they should be.

Decoding John: Making of a Dream Sequence – This featurette, which goes about 13:32, is the most important extra on this disc. To really get a picture of just how huge David Milch’s vision for this show really is, you have to check out this extra, which explains the series’ single most mind-blowing and confusing sequence. The featurette has Milch explaining the climactic scene from episode six of the series, which is by far the most peculiar moment of the whole show, but also one of its most significant.

Confusing, maddening, heartbreaking and brilliant are all things you could use to describe this season of John from Cincinnati. This is the most off the wall series I’ve ever really sat through, but because of the work of David Milch and his cast and crew, I can unequivocally say that the series is absolutely worth your time. The DVD for the show is a bit light on extras, but what’s there is also quite good and helps to shed some light on this series and its themes.

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HBO presents John from Cincinnati – The Complete First Season. Created by David Milch. Starring Bruce Greenwood, Rebecca De Mornay, Austin Nichols, and Ed O’Neill. Written by SCREENWRITER. Running time: 600 minutes. Unated. Released on DVD: April 1, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.

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