“The end is near,” says John from Cincinnati.
That’s what he’s been saying since the HBO drama “John From Cincinnati” began, though with scant supporting evidence. John isn’t big on details.
Even so, he’s been proved right. At least, one way. “John From Cincinnati” will conclude its 10-episode run Sunday at 9 p.m. ET. The end for sure is near.
What will the end bring? Maybe some answers about the Yost surfing family and other eccentrics in Imperial Beach, Calif., during a very peculiar few days. (Series stars include Rebecca De Mornay, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Van Holt, Luke Perry, Ed O’Neill, Greyson Fletcher and Austin Nichols as John.)
Maybe there will be an explanation for why, these days, long-ago surfing great Mitch Yost sometimes rises several inches off the ground.
And maybe an accounting for how Mitch’s teenage grandson, Shaun, seemed to breathe life back into a dead pet bird — and how, with Shaun left paralyzed and brain-dead from a surfing accident, the bird was able to restore him to life and full health.
Maybe the end will, at last, shed light on the mysterious stranger known up to now as John — just who he really is and where he’s from (don’t bet on Cincinnati).
John seems to be the cause of all the miraculous, befuddling goings-on. He seems divinely touched, the sort of guy whose savagely inflicted stab wounds healed right away. He also seems to be mentally challenged, or an idiot savant, with his choirboy wholesomeness.
“You’ll know to say something but you won’t know what it means,” an exasperated local presses him. “You want to do something and you’ll do it — but you won’t understand what you did.”
Why should he? As John says with his rote delivery, “Some things I know and some things I don’t.”
Ditto for viewers, who should know better than to count on a tidy resolution when the season (or the series?) meets its imminent end.
‘Deadwood’ hangs ten
Co-created by David Milch, “John From Cincinnati” echoes his earlier HBO series, “Deadwood,” a 19th-century Western teeming with elliptical, thorny storytelling and f-word-studded lyricism.
As on “Deadwood,” whose scramble for wealth was framed as a model of America’s, “John” also addresses the profit motive, though in contemporary terms. It asks: Should the pristine passion of surfing (as personified by young Shaun) be corrupted by corporate sponsorships and other moneymaking deals?
“That’s flipping your fins for an audience,” seethes Mitch, who doesn’t want his grandson selling out.
OK. Money is the root of all evil. Fair enough.
But if that’s true, why is the divinely inspired John packing a platinum credit card with no upper limit? “Deadwood” preached the civilizing impact of the free-enterprise system, even on a wild-and-woolly mining town. Why, on “John,” must a similar entrepreneurial spirit be at war with spiritualism?
What’s up with all that mystic mumbo-jumbo? How come Mitch goes up in the air?
Some things I know and some things I don’t. One thing I know: “John From Cincinnati” has been a confounding exercise for me as a viewer. It’s a series too murky and withholding for its own good — or that of many would-be fans.
And yet ... I, for one, have kept returning. However confusing “John” may be (until now, anyway, before the revelation that may or may not come), it compels me to stop scratching my head long enough for a round of applause.
Applause for its originality. For its brass. For the music of its raunchy dialogue (sorry, nothing quotable here).
And, most of all, for its collection of characters. No, they aren’t the equal of those who populated “Deadwood” — not as novel, rich or outrageous. But the people of “John From Cincinnati” share with one another a trait whose pervasiveness has me maddeningly fixated: They, with almost no exception, are quite mad.
It's a mad, mad world
“John” has reveled in madness of many stripes and many colors.
There’s Butchie, the drugged-out former surfer king and Shaun’s derelict dad. Cissy, Butchie’s sexy mother, who has swallowed too much LSD and has a hair-trigger temper to show for it.
There’s Dr. Smith, who is thrown for a loop (and abandons his hospital job) after witnessing Shaun’s resurrection. Barry, an epileptic who, along with his seizures, gets visions (including the lottery number that made him a fortune).
There’s Bill, a paranoid retired cop with a delusional streak who talks philosophy with his pet birds.
And there are plenty more in this seaside asylum.
“I wanna go back to normal,” Shaun told his father in a recent episode.
“The hand that you were dealt ain’t going anywhere,” Butchie scoffed. “Or mine ... your gram’s ... gramps’ ... your mom’s. Or anybody else’s.”
Sure, they may be blessed with redemption in the final episode (though, God, I hope not). Or, instead, Butchie might be right: They ain’t going anywhere, least of all within shouting distance of normal.
Some things I know and some things I don’t. I don’t know what “John From Cincinnati” is about. But I do know there’s a madness to its method. Madness — not family or the surfing culture — is what binds these characters, however punishing for them and challenging for me.
Madness is the series’ unifying force, at the core of its convoluted message.