‘John From Cincinnati’: About Three Inches Off the Ground

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

One scene in last night's premiere of HBO's John From Cincinnati featured the cage of a dead bird silhouetted against a darkened room. Another opened with a mysterious voice emanating from dense underbrush. One character, the resident of a fleabag motel, had just lost a large sum of money in a heroin deal. A malevolent Luke Perry stalked the beach at dawn. It augured a promising synthesis of lowlife double-dealings and supernatural ominousness, but the characters on the screen largely ignored the weirdness of the surroundings while engaged in their own comic/tragic shenanigans. The first episode's surf-family-infighting plot culminated in a father-son heart-to-heart about whether or not the father was in fact levitating three inches off the ground (he was). Will this zany/sentimental hybrid make for a better show than a more straightforward exploration of "angry family" or "weird goings-on"?

We don't know yet. All the eccentric-character-building certainly made for confounding stretches last night: Much of the dialogue flat-out didn't make sense, with the titular John and several others speaking in colorfully-worded crypticisms. This tendency, interpreted as pretentiousness, has already turned off many critics — and, it must be admitted, an entire series of non-linearity would be quite a pain in the ass. But must our short American attention spans always be appeased? Is HBO's Plot Comprehensibility Quota not already overfulfilled by Entourage? Lacking advance DVDs of upcoming episodes, the question should be: Was the premiere well-written enough to suggest that the David Milch brain trust can handle the job of artfully revealing just what the hell everyone was talking about? For now, we point to the following dialogue as evidence that the show deserves the nation's trust:

Gun-carrying motel owner: "I am armed in accord with the State Lottery Commission's pamphlet, 'The Challenge of Sudden Wealth,' which urges that winners be cautious in the conduct of their business affairs."

Motel manager: "Sensible." —Ben Mathis-Lilley