Here’s What “John From Cincinnati” Means

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?

shaun-butch-john.jpgThe 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.

39 thoughts on “Here’s What “John From Cincinnati” Means

  1. Hey John, excellent analysis! I’d say that’s pretty spot-on, especially after reading Milch’s post-mortem interview with Cynthia Littleton at Variety yesterday.
    http://weblogs.variety.com/on_the_air/2007/08/john-from-cin-2.html#comment-79438739

    I do believe they (the writers) wouldn’t have had to force two tons of “stuff” into a one-ton bag, had they been given the opportunity to let the series play out over, say, two seasons. I now think they saw the writing on the wall mid-season and just tried to cram it all into 10 episodes…which did give the illusion of being forced.

    I also think that even sooner than 25 years from now – the show will be seen as prophetic. Since the show has officially been cancelled, it is now up to the people who “got it” to be the agents for change.

    In the words of my favorite band, Sugarland, “Change your mind, change the world”. We need to use the zeroes and ones to think and help, instead of to react. Therein lies the message.

  2. I tend to agree with you on most your explanation of the show- I was definitely wondering about the car dealer being divine when I watched the final episode for the first time. Although I do have to take issue with the a portion of the last part (2 tons in 1 ton bag comment)- not that I disagree with you, but I think we don’t know enough to determine whtether the writers forced the issue themselves, or whether HBO put pressuure on them to force the issue.

    I am sad to see the series is getting cancelled- one thing I loved about it (especially with the earlier episdodes) is that nothing, with the exception of possibly character names is spoonfed to the viewer, and if one is inquisitive, like I am, you are constantly wanting answers to the questions that constantly kept appearing. My guess is that the writers had the whole thing planned out from the beginning, but were forced to cut it short. I hope that it gets picked up again, by HBO or someone else, but I’m not holding my breath.

  3. I don’t think it’s as simple minded as a second coming. Why does Cass say John is like a programmed robot? There is something else going on here. What it is, I still haven’t figured out. Maybe HBO will replay the series over the rest of the summer and we can all see it in a new light.

    John seems to be like a genie out of the bottle who gives everyone what they wish for. Shaun wanted to be gone. Linc wanted the deal. The VFW guy wanted to help. Each got what he wished for. I don’t remember if Mitch wished to get high. Did he?

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  5. I think HBO made a mistake canceling the show so quickly. I agree…a second run-through might have allowed people to grasp what the show was about. Far more flawed programs than JFC — and far less original — stay on the air on HBO and other networks. It would have been worth playing it out a little longer.

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  7. Instead if fishers of men, surfers.

    We had a physician, two criminals getting set up for would’ve been a strange execution for sure, no tax collector really–a lawyer, a crooked PR man–which is what Paul gets accused of being. And he wrote some great letters.

    And here’s an observation I toss out in for-what-it’s worth. I thought with their unlined blondeness and lanky figures that Cass and Shaun kind of….resembled each other.

    This was a smart, strange show that didn’t talk down or explain everything–though in the end, Milch might’ve been better off crafting a 135-minute cinematic epic to get it all said (eventually) in one sitting.

  8. I liked the show’s production values, but I think it failed as a series. I understand the message behind it (moreso after reading this explanation) but it definitely wasn’t meant for mass syndication. There is no way an audience as large as HBO’s can absorb all of the complexities of a show like this in the way it was presented.

    Mainly, there was way to much going on at once with way too little explanation of what it actually meant. By cramming in a lot of random miracles, cryptic dialog, and quirky characters, it seems like it was a bit over-the-top for the typical Sunday night Sopranos/Entourage audience, where everything is taken at face value.

    Also, way too many loose ends that really never got wrapped up (i.e. Barry’s “ghosts”, the Doctor’s practice, the cliffhanging dialog at the end, the “9-11-14” significance… etc.)

    I really wanted to like this show, but unfortunately I think it was too heavy and too nonsensical for me.

  9. John, and others:

    For me, I’ll miss those big, bold san serif titles at the show’s opening. The music and images were gorgeous together.

    However, in the “better late than ever department,” I thought I’d pass along this rather curious article from the NYT two weeks ago that sounds like it should’ve been a future “JFC” plot line.

    Probably most “In Exile” readers have duly noted this piece about a retired Hawaiian physician and an Israeli sports chain supplying surf boards to Palestinians who wish to catch a wave off Erez. I think you can get there from here by pasting this in, or it may tell you to subscribe, or you can Google Dr. Dorian Paskowitz. You can’t make this stuff up.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/22/world/middleeast/22mideast.html?ex=1188446400&en=320b4f1c152177b6&ei=5070&emc=eta1

  10. No review here… Just want to say Milch has a way of capturing me like nobody else (Sorry Alan Ball). This was my favorite HBO series to date (with Deadwood, another series cut off too soon, running a close second).

    My issue is, why can we not see this on demand, get any gear from the hbo store or find anything about one of the smartest series ever produced.

    I find it sad there are still episodes of Oz running instead. Nothing against that series, but really?…

  11. I just thank Goodness for something that dared to poke its’ head above the ‘parapet’ and made me ‘think’.

    We just finished the show last night on Brit TV, agreed the end was rushed, and only partly satisfied me…I would have liked another series to see what would transpire.

  12. hbo surely has there collective head up their ass. this was an awesome show, and they killed it, loke deadwood, like 6 feet under, like the sopranos.
    I cancelled hbo after the killed john from cincinatti

  13. I’m with M.C. and J.M. OZ was kept on all too long, and JFC was cancelled all too early. HBO will never get another one of my dollars. Ratings were going UP when the show got canceled. Foolish execu-sheeple. You were paddling to catch a ride on a tsunami and didn’t even know it, so you gave up. May you drown on your own vomit.

  14. what a show… you cant imagine my disappointment when i found out the show was getting canned. amazing series that deserved more time to send a message though..
    HBO shame on you!!!

  15. At first, my girlfriend and I were like… what? But the farther we hung on, the more and more I wanted to figure it out…. not necessarily liking it, but wanted to figure it out.

    We are both huge Deadwood fans, and once we heard David Milch speak for the first time, we were interested in ANYTHING he did. This man is BRILLIANT.

    I think John’s first analysis is great, but in my opinion (and through some research) there are a few other things on and off the screen to consider, in no particular order…. PS – I’m NOT a religious person.

    1. Everything on Cass’s camera represented everything that was real… almost like the eyes of god. The stripped down, naked version, of everything. Also, Kai was another character that I interpreted as godlike… they pretty much give it to you with the last line of of show as her surfing is the last thing you see.

    2. Briefly put… I agree that the character John was the second coming… John from Cinccinatti… JC… coincidence? He was also purposely presented as childlike because it was Milch’s decision that if there were to be a second coming, JC would have to appear to the most F’d up people on earth (surfers), in the most innocent way possible… a child. In appearance and definitely in mannerisms/language. It would be the only way for JC to eventually get through to these people’s heavily corrupted minds. Whether they were sellouts, drug dealers or addicts, media whores, abused people (I’ll get to that shortly), etc.

    3. In speaking about Barry Cunningham’s ghosts in a previous post… The story is that he was sexually abused in room 24 of the motel by the ghost we occasionally see… an old highschool teacher of his. Barry won the lottery, bought the motel to have it leveled, but then didn’t follow through.

    4. David Milch was F-ING enraged that Deadwood was canceled. HBO still “liked” him, and wanted to keep him though, so told him they wanted him to do a series about surfing. As you can see, Hbo really knew what Milch was about (sarcasm). So, in a way, having the message/premise of this show delivered through surfing was kind of like a big F-U to Hbo from Milch… but of course, Milch took it very seriously. Also, if you notice, a good 60% of the Deadwood cast pops up in JFC. When Deadwood got canceled, one of Milch’s huge arguments was with the fact that a few hundred people (actors, crew, etc) were now out of work, except him.

    5. “Shaun will be gone” I think refers to the fact that Shaun is the most innocent and level headed people of them all, but as he gets older, I think if he sticks around his family and other people, he’s just going to become one of them… or “gone.”

    6. 9/11/14 insinuates that a 9/11 event is going to happen again. I haven’t figured out if it takes the success of John’s mission to stop it from occurring or not.

    I sped through this description without cleaning it up, so I apologize if it’s a little messy, but one of the most important things I realized about the show was that not everything had a meaning. There are characters that don’t really have a pivotal role in the whole picture. There are “miracles” that really don’t have a specific meaning… why does Mitch levitate?

    Oh well, I’m now a fan, but it’s hard to watch it again without knowing there will be more. I couldn’t get my girl into it, as smart and open minded as she is. David Milch is one of those artists that should just be paid, and then LEFT ALONE TO DO WHAT HE DOES. Give him 100% control, and don’t get in his way.

    I really enjoy talking about this show, so hopefully this blog isn’t outdated.

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  17. Thanks for the thoughtful, insightful commentary. I echo justjudith that this is the first thing I’ve read about John from Cincinnati that makes it make sense to me. The collaboration between Milch — one of the smartest and bravest TV producers of our time — and Kem Nunn, who I think is a writer of great depth, particularly where surfing and surf culture is concerned, should have been one of the all time great TV shows, but it never quite worked for me. And doubtless being canned before it could fully unroll all the ideas and characters it had to work with didn’t help. The shadow of 9/11 — and most importantly what it ends up meaning to us — is something that I don’t think any art has effectively dealt with so far, but at least these guys tried, and tried hard, with a premise (as posited here) as ambitious as our own quest for meaning and understanding should be. Again, thank you.

  18. I thought the show was great; incomprehensible to most but played with all the last days of Christ with a strange twist. Anyone remember Godspell? Just take it to the beach at a different time…I want to watch it again soon!

  19. I never got the chance to view JFC during its original run, and am now seeing it on DVD. Luckily, it’s through Netflix and I didn’t purchase it. Ugh! I agree with the kudos for the effort, and I do dig the symbolism, but “messages” must be packaged in digestible wrapping, and JFC failed miserably here.

    I was dying to see the show, because the cast is literally filled with actors I perceive as capable, but when I finally got to it, their performances, while fascinating, were mired in confusing and convoluted dialogue. In a way, it was like Shakespeare: you can follow the basic plot enough, but you have no idea what individual monologues and back-and-forths are talking about! It was constantly and increasingly frustrating.

    One MAJOR exception to the great casting was of Shaun. I read that he was quickly cast based on his skateboard skills alone. It shows! Greyson Fletcher is about as good an actor as Laurence Olivier is TODAY. It was like watching a mannequin learn to walk and talk on day one.

    JFC was a great idea delivered with brilliant and horrible elements, combining to make one confusing mess. A shame, really. If they had simplified the dialogue to actually tell a story rather than impress themselves, I might actually feel bad it got cancelled.

  20. people that didnt like the show…..just go back to your american idol….this show was just way to intellectual for you and you would never even BEGIN to understand it anyway. It just wasnt meant for you.

  21. Observe also that John can say only things that have been said to him. He is a reflection of them. He shows themselves to them. Christ is a reflection of our better selves; John is a reflection of our total selves.

  22. Just finished watching the complete season rental from blockbuster and I have to say it was one the best rental .The =show was so true to the ways families as well as individuals become casualties of life with all of the defects. John main point was to show us that the characters all have defects and are able to become better with concern to change .The message I took from this great interpretation of life fk ups is right on target. In addition, I believe if the show was on for another season a lot more would have been introduced and explained. What a waste that it was not continued for another season.

  23. I missed this series when it first came around and have now just watched every episode on Netflix DVD’s. I admit it was weird and rather difficult to understand the true meaning, but for me it was very entertaining and each episode left me wanting more. Isn’t that what television drama is all about? I’ve never seen a one-and-done television show that left me so unsatisfied and angry over the lack of a season 2. Or more. Shame on HBO.

  24. I just watched JfC again. What jumped out at me was this: the talk between John and Link at the hotel upon John’s and Sean’s return (may not be exact quotes):
    1. ‘But not every Towelhead is eradicated.’
    2. ‘You’re all toast. We’re all coming 9/11/14.’
    That is some weird stuff with 91/11/14 being some few days away. 25 years may be too short a period for this program to be prescient!

  25. The problem with show is that many of the so-called miracles associated with religion were applied in a random order, so they were detached from what was happening in the show. I can see why John would not walk above ground and make the show more about him, but if he was going to make the dead bird come alive, or make someone stand above ground, should he not be present when the bird came alive, and shouldn’t it be part of a lesson? Should standing in air be for no known reason to the the viewer? Should John seam dim witted, and babble like a parrot like he has no thoughts of his own? The show could have been so much better, but it wasn’t, and I did watch it until it was canceled, continually waiting for it to get better. I;m sorry for my comments to be so far from the end of the actual show, but I have Prime and I started watching it to see if I could think anything better about the show.

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