John From Cincinnati is that rare thing: an HBO flop. It went to air in the US in late 2007 and lasted for only a single, ten-episode season. But don’t let that put you off. Don’t even let the fact that Luke Perry is in it put you off. No really, don’t. It’s a great show and it’s available on DVD.

It is about a family of drugged-out, or formerly drugged-out, professional surfers living in “the tired coastal town of Imperial Beach, CA”. I won’t describe the plot because I’m pretty sure I can’t. Suffice to say the story is character-driven and the characters are fabulous. Rebecca De Mornay (or Tuna, as we call her) gives a stunning performance as Cissy Yost, the damaged matriarch of the family of surfing legends. Why exactly she is damaged in the way that she is is revealed towards the end and is genuinely disturbing.

Bruce Greenwood plays Tuna’s husband, Mitch Yost, and he’s a retired surfer who has gone all spiritual and wants to eliminate competition and commercialism from surfing. Between them stands their grandchild, Shaun. Shaun’s dad is the drug-addled Butchie, who comes and goes. His mum (mom) is p-rn star Tina Blake who, ironically, he doesn’t see a lot of. Shaun is the pure centre of a family gone to hell and the object of everyone’s desire to make amends: they all want to protect him from going down the same path of misadventure they have travelled.

And then there is the John of the title. He appears in their midst and is taken to be slow. He isn’t. But what he is, isn’t really clear. A ghost? An alien? A god? Quite possibly. He can sure do some far-out stuff. He becomes central to everyone’s lives and the series builds to a conclusion where all is revealed but we are left none the wiser. The key final scene, the so-called dream sequence, is as good as anything I’ve seen, though you obviously need to watch all that goes before to have any chance of it making sense. (And when it still doesn’t makes sense, turn on the commentary provided by writer Kem Nunn.)

Throughout, a range of other characters emerge and everyone of them is beautifully realised. Of particular note is Ed “Love and Marriage” O’Neill as retired cop Bill Jacks. Great character. Great performance. Added bonuses are some fantastic surfing footage and a killer soundtrack.

Even though I loved this show, I can see why it flopped. It’s pretty out there. But it really is worth recommending. Ten episodes? Nuthin. You can knock it over in a weekend…

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey