‘John From Cincinnati’: Behold the Magic Bird!

Keala Kennelly, Brian Van Holt, and Austin Nichols, waiting on their feathered friend.Photo: Courtesy of HBO


The second episode of David Milch’s John From Cincinnati continues to announce the show's deep ambitions — and alienate plot-hungry 24 fans everywhere. Disregarding anything like suspense, John creates an eerie, foreboding air that's more like DeLillo’s “Airborne Toxic Event” from White Noise than 24's season-five threat.

This episode doesn’t explain the first-episode mysteries that flummoxed so many critics: We don’t learn why Mitch Yost levitates or exactly who John is. But this is Milch's world, where themes develop methodically (and slowly) — not The Real World, where the hot girl goes topless and weeps in the first episode. That said, episode two is more eventful than the premiere, as grown-up Dylan McKay snakily persuades the Yosts to let Shaun join a surfing competition. Enter Milch the Metaphysician: An accident paralyzes Shaun. A bird kisses him back to life. You can almost feel the hard-core 24 fans longing for some retributive violence instead.

A plea: Don't check out because a magic bird heals an injured surfer. Give the series time! Don’t think of John’s unabashed mysticism and obscure mysteries as “obstacles to success,” as the New York Times put it — think of them as hints of Milch's genre-busting ambitions. Did we think we’d like looking at Sipowicz’s ass? What did you first think of the Melville-meets-the-word cocksucker dialogue in Milch's Deadwood? John's thematic strands are braiding into a fresh vision of an American subculture, with Milch wielding surfer-dude Gnosticism as David Chase used pop culture.

But Milch is exploring even wilder philosophical terrain: John Monad’s last name references Leibniz’s “science of unity,” monadology. Since John and Shaun both surf like naturals — and Shaun even exchanges life-giving kisses with “Zippy” the magic bird — the two seem to embody Leibniz’s ideals of spiritual unity with the world around them. Mitch, whose bullish pursuit of purity comes at the expense of his grandson’s burgeoning surfing career, does not — to say the least. But these characters aren’t just walking concepts. Delivering Milch's dense dialogue, mixing up scatology and eschatology, and veering high and low — these characters have already become irresistibly, unpredictably human. —Alexander Benaim

Related: Holy Water [NYM]