I get it. The fact that I get it doesn’t make “John From Cincinnati” a good show, but if you’re wondering what it’s all about, it’s simple.
“John From Cincinnati” tried to answer the question of what would happen if the most potent figures from the New Testament, akin to John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Joseph and Mary and of course, Jesus Christ, were to emerge in a contemporary setting. What would the people around them do?
The show asks: Do you believe the New Testament? Do you take it as a matter of not just faith but fact that Jesus performed miracles like raising the dead and walking on water? Was the purpose of these miraculous feats to persuade the people of his times to believe he was divine, and that his words were prophecies?
If you do believe these things, why would you find “John From Cincinnati” implausible? Isn’t there supposed to be a return? Well, then, it could happen like it does on the show, couldn’t it?
The show was rife with Christian mystical symbolism, but I don’t think the point of the show was to bring us all to Jesus. It was, instead, a what-if, a fantasy, a film noir Second Coming. And yet, within the universe of the show, we are to believe that this particular Second Coming is a very good thing — for the characters in the show, and for humanity in general. The crisis precipitated by 9/11 is “huge,” as John says. Bigger than what we believe it to be already. An existential threat that will require divine force to save us mere, frail humans from turning it into an apocalypse.
I think David Milch, the co-creator of the show, is deadly serious about that notion. Typical of Milch and the seedy, compromised characters he offers as heroes, John insists on using the racist terms “towelheads” and “ragheads” to identify the perceived threat. They show that John is a linguistic sponge, using contemporary expressions he picks up from the other characters, talking to each of them in their own words in a way that makes them distinctly uncomfortable or annoyed. Which, given how they sound, they should be.
It’s all part of a fascinating premise. I don’t think Milch & co. delivered, though. They had me with the opening sequence, Shaun’s surfing reappearance with John, the two of them wearing camouflage wetsuits, each character discovering that the beloved boy surfer is home safe, with a great, unappreciated Bob Dylan song, “Series of Dreams” in the background:
Thinking of a series of dreams
Where the time and the tempo fly
And there’s no exit in any direction
‘Cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes
Wasn’t making any great connection
Wasn’t falling for any intricate scheme
Nothing that would pass inspection
Just thinking of a series of dreams
Dreams where the umbrella is folded
Into the path you are hurled
And the cards are no good that you’re holding
Unless they’re from another world
The story then unfolded with some pretty interesting conversations involving John, trying to explain himself, haltingly making sense to Linc, the incredibly successful surf gear promoter. Eventually, it is decided that the entire surfing family of which Shaun is a part will be sponsored by Linc’s company, but only to create cover for Shaun’s real sponsor…The Father. The words of the divine will go down a lot easier if they are downloaded off the Internet by acolytes who think they’re just fans of a hot new surfer.
The next-to-final scene, a “parade” in downtown Imperial Beach, was poorly crafted — almost as if Milch & co. knew the show was going to be yanked, so they had to cram in everything they hoped the show to mean into one long, badly-written, improbable speech by Linc, combined with the beatific faces of the weird mokes who have become transformed into disciples.
An earlier scene is even stranger. John has been demanding an El Camino — a bit heavy-handed, that particular symbol — and so several characters go to a used car dealership. The car salesman is, well, speaking in tongues. Perhaps he’s The Father in disguise. Here’s the scene from the script, posted as part of “Inside the Episode” from the show’s website:
EXT. CHERRY OLDIES USED CAR SALES – DAY
Linc and Jake and John with the owner/operator of Cherry Oldies Used Car Sales. The Dealer’s appearance invokes P.T. Barnum’s trustworthiness, and his manner Chicken Little’s hurried angst —
DEALER: I feel that you boys are ready for this Camino ….
LINC: (Includes Jake) Between the two of us we own more cars than you have on this lot. My guess is that your feeling’s probably right.
Linc meant to put the Dealer off his pitch and thereby abbreviate their business; instead the Dealer bridles —
DEALER: That’s not what I mean by ready – number of vehicles owned.
Jake and Linc tag-team their message of impatience —
JAKE: What do you mean, Pops?
LINC: We got to, uh, boogie.
The Dealer comes over their top —
DEALER: Oh, so I’ve got to know what I mean before I can have a feeling. Do I have to know that you’ll understand me? Do you have to know you’ll understand before you’ll listen?
Which appears to put Jake in a different, passive state —
DEALER (to Linc): Twenty-five cars between you — you should’ve let me sit down before you told me. I got that many dealerships in each of that many sectors, and brands on goddamn franchise. I’ve got to boogie, me.
John indicates the Dealer, in whose rhythms and accents he reproaches Linc and Jake for their failure to take the Dealer’s premise on its face —
JOHN: He feels you’re ready for the Camino.
Where Jake’s gone, Linc has now gone too —
DEALER (to John) You’re off-line now, Country.
JOHN: I don’t know Butchie instead.
DEALER: (To Linc and Jake, re John) How’s he for high-performance? And he ain’t who’s worst-underpowered.
If the Dealer had suspenders he’d flex them to indicate who he means —
DEALER: Intrusions, evanescences – I’m a shepherd without crook or understanding. Fits and stops and starts. Waves and ripples and ramifications. Busted knee, mother-son handjob …. Christ, Jesus Christ Jesus Christ.
The Dealer’s tight smile is not fully persuasive —
DEALER: Crosses and shoulders to bear ’em.
He smacks his hand on the El Camino —
DEALER: El Camino, fifteen thousand, as is.
Linc and Jake have regained their faculties —
LINC: Is it gassed?
JOHN: F**king-A right it’s gassed Linc.
As John puts on the counter the fifteen thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills which has materialized in his pocket the Dealer’s stern gaze goes to Linc —
DEALER: You and your twenty-five cars. Circle and line on the wall, and zeros and goddamned ones, is what to turn the both of your gifts to —
The Dealer’s “both” appears to include Jake —
DEALER: — and not one damn minute to waste.
JOHN: Ragheads are going to get themselves eradicated.
DEALER: (vigorously interrupting John) Country, I took you off-line. (calling off camera, re El Camino) Manuel, get a cage on this thing.
John leans over the hood of the El Camino and employs the entirety of his wingspan to offer it a hug.
That’s right. He hugs the El Camino.
Look, you can only admire the ambition behind the show. But it failed because, in a way, they didn’t trust the material they had. The writers kept forcing the issue, jamming two tons of something — sand, maybe — into a one-ton bag. But the genius of its creators, Milch especially, was not completely absent, especially not in this final episode. The music and images at the beginning — breathtaking. The last scene, between a retired cop played by Ed O’Neill and the bedroom of his late wife, was extremely touching.
So, in the end, it was worth watching. I have a dismal suspicion that, 25 years from now, “John From Cincinnati” will be seen as prophetic. Heaven help us.