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News series review: John From Cincinnati (HBO)

Magical, mysterious John puts a new HBO series in murky waters.

Premiering: Sunday, June 10 at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Rebecca De Mornay, Bruce Greenwood, Ed O'Neill, Brian Van Holt, Austin Nichols, Greyson Fletcher, Luis Guzman, Keala Kennely, Luke Perry, Matt Winston, Willie Garson
Created by: David Milch, Kem Nunn

Maybe David Milch has finally completed the job and morphed into David Lynch.

The Deadwood head's new HBO surfer series, John From Cincinnati, is intriguing, annoying, frustrating and either sophomorically or bracingly deep. Immersing oneself in its first three episodes is like taking a bath in a mud puddle. You won't come away clean, but it's certainly been a different experience.

This is Milch's Twin Peaks, and the guess is that most viewers will take a peek and then tune it out after Sunday's series finale of The Sopranos. Maybe you'll make it as far as Zippy the cockatiel coming back to life. Don't ask.

Milch, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict, seems to be delving deep into his demons, searching for answers while probably holding out hope that there really aren't any. One of his more lucid descriptions of John From Cincinnati, during a January session with TV critics, shows there's a brilliant mind working behind the scenes. But if you think Lost is deep or maddeningly obtuse . . .

"This is a story that takes place on the margins of things," Milch said. "The attempt to identify the coordinates of reality is itself a kind of problematic and conditional effort. It's changing all the time. What constitutes -- where are we when we sleep? What is our sense of reality at that moment?

"It's, you know, science now suggests to us that what has been perceived as matter for a long time is, in fact, energy. That what looks solid, in fact, is constituted in waves, that Einstein's beautiful mathematical equations which depict the nature of reality don't apply at certain levels. And I think that's true as well about what constitutes the natural and the supernatural. You know, it depends on what foxhole you're in."

No, this isn't Gilligan's Island.

Basically, John From Cincinnati is about a host family named Yost. Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) is an embittered California surfing legend whose gainful career ended with a devastating knee injury. His wife, Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay), loves/endures him.

Son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) was even better at riding the waves, but now is a pathetic drug-addicted burnout and misfit father. His vocabulary is strongly influenced by f-bombs, making him a natural descendant of Deadwood saloon magnate Al Swearengen.

Butchie's lone son, 13-year-old Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), is a pure-as-the-driven-snow surfing prodigy who speaks in shorter bursts than Chuck Norris. Grandpa hates the idea of him surfing for a living, but grandma secretly encourages and enables Shaun.

Into their lives drops John (Austin Nichols), who outwardly seems to be autistic but may in fact be Christlike or even Christ.

John mostly parrots what others say and do, but does have an overall tagline. "The end is near," he keeps saying. And in a future episode, a surf shop saleswoman named Kai (Keala Kennelly) goes briefly comatose after John instructs her to "See God."

Meanwhile, Mitch suddenly levitates, and fears he has brain cancer. And Butchie befriends John after seeing he has a bottomless platinum credit card.

There's also addled Bill (Ed O'Neill), an ex-cop who's now a few bullets shy of a six-shooter. Even odder is the seemingly psychotic Barry (Matt Winston), a lottery winner who buys the decrepit motel where Butchie is holed up.

John From Cincinnati has a semi-straightahead character in Linc (former Beverly Hills, 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry). Even so, he's devious in his efforts to exploit Shaun's off-the-charts surfing talents.

Milch whirs all of this in a blender that sometimes breaks down. Does he know where he's going? Do we care where he's going? Is there any intent to sort things out, or are we at best being welcomed to his nightmare?

Later episodes pick up some speed, but not a lot of clarity. Still, a major turn of events imbeds a hook at the end of Episode 2. But then . . . well, we'd better pull up short of giving anything away. Other than to say that those still sticking with John From Cincinnati might be struck by how utterly predictable this particular turnabout is.

All in all then, this seems to be quite a fine mess that Milch has created. Or could it be a masterpiece that needs much more time to reveal itself as such?

Here's another thing John keeps saying: "Some things I know and some things I don't."

Ain't that the truth.

Grade: B-minus