So HBO is coming to Amazon. This is good news, I think, insofar as anything that makes the great shows of the HBO Renaissance available to more people is good news. I’m a TV obsessive of a certain age — definition of “a certain age” freely covering anyone who remembers when “TV is better than movies” was an argument that you had to make, when TV-on-DVD was the technological forefront, and when the notion of “downloading” a TV show didn’t seem needlessly wasteful of valuable hard drive space.
Like several other Of A Certain Age TV Obsessives, I grow alarmed at the idea of the rising generation and what Anne Helen Peterson called the New Netflix Canon. Netflix is a delivery system for quality television; it is not a delivery system for all quality television. The promise of the DVD era was that everything would become available to everyone; the fear of the streaming era is that some things are slightly less available to most everyone, and the slightly-less-available things vanish in the mist. There’s nothing wrong with new canons. Kids who love Breaking Bad don’t need to genuflect at the altar of The Sopranos, anymore than people who loved The Wild Bunch needed to crosslink that love towards The Searchers.
But to move this into the realm of straw men and rampant generalizations: I find myself having more conversations lately with people of all ages who have never seen The Sopranos, who are perpetually about to start watching The Wire, who will maybe only consider watching Rome when I tells them it’s like Game of Thrones without dragons. There are too many TV shows to watch; it makes more sense to watch shows that people are currently talking about; most of those shows are on Netflix; new things are fundamentally more interesting to most people than old things; hence, nobody ever gets around to Deadwood.
So again, HBO is coming to Amazon: Hooray! Amazon Prime deep-divers might find their way to the two-season wonder Enlightened, or to The Pacific, a.k.a. the Empire Strikes Back to Band of Brothers’ New Hope. But there’s an important piece of the greater HBO puzzle missing here. John From Cincinnati is not coming to Amazon Prime. Sure, you can buy individual episodes via the Instant Video service…which means that the entire run of John From Cincinnati costs the equivalent of two months of an Amazon Prime membership, which is why people aren’t buying individual episodes of anything anymore. More crucially, John From Cincinnati is not currently available on HBO Go — and, when I contacted HBO, a representative had no specifics on the show’s future on the streaming service.
Now, John From Cincinnati is not really in anyone’s canon. It’s barely remembered except as a variable punchline for whatever successful TV isn’t. (In that regard and no others, it was the original Low Winter Sun.) It was about surfing, which probably scared off people who don’t care about surfing, but it’s also about surfing in the weirdest way possible, which I assume didn’t sit well with surfing obsessives. (It’s the Friday Night Lights problem, except with more pantheistic allegory.) It is the most inscrutable work from a barely scrutable creator. It is hard to say what, precisely, happens on the show. (The slowest season of Mad Men looks like Scandal by comparison.) Whenever I tell people to watch the show, they inevitably ask me something to the effect of “Is that actually good?” in a manner that reminds me that “goodness” on television is still fundamentally binary (“Is this more worth watching than whatever else I need to watch?”). It’s hard to tell people that they need to watch a show that is guaranteed to frustrate them.
John From Cincinnati is essential viewing for anyone who cares about television, partially because it challenges every aspect of conventional wisdom about the medium and mainly because it is so willfully hard to pin down. TV has trended faster and more obviously genre-oriented in the last five years: fantasy, horror, political thriller, a show about detectives called True Detective. Even the new batches of streaming shows from various content providers feels more plucky than experimental: They’re all set in New York or Los Angeles, or they have some kind of fantastical “hook.” (He’s a slacker ghostbuster! The apocalypse is happening, and Jamie Kennedy is a clown!)
John From Cincinnati has none of these things, though not for lack of trying. The simplest way to describe it is: “What if Jesus Christ appeared today and decided to spread his message mostly vis a vis a family of surfers?” But that doesn’t really capture what makes the show interesting.
David Milch doesn’t really write dialogue so much as he writes glorious musings, which makes his best work feel a bit like an extended tangent. John From Cincinnanti is the Tangent-As-Purpose. The lead character (played by Austin Nichols with admirably awful hair) might be an alien or a robot or the reincarnation of Christ or the reincarnation of Jim Carrey in The Majestic. The show is initially constructed around his interactions with the Yost family, a clan of surfing royalty.
But the show quickly expands its ensemble to include a whole host of characters who could be termed “misfits” if the series didn’t strive so hard to imbue their remarkably smallscale dramas with depth. It’s a show about drug addiction and repressed trauma, a show about loss but also one of the most optimistic dramas to ever come out of HBO. Luiz Guzman is on the show, barely. There is an incredible scene that requires no context wherein former ’90s teen star Luke Perry has a serious conversation with former ’90s teen star Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and all you really have to notice about this scene is that they are styled to look eerily identical, for reasons that are either really important or not important at all:
Am I selling this show? Is it enough to just say there was never anything else like it, that the show’s anti-narrative anti-gravity makes much better TV dramas look a bit too grounded by comparison? John From Cincinnati rides a singular wave between camp and profundity, between navel-imploding indulgence and brainbending genius; if The Sopranos was the Godfather of TV in the ’00s, then John From Cincinnati was the El Topo. (Imagine a Roger Corman movie written by Harold Pinter.) It’s a part of TV history. It’s available on DVD — cheap!
But the future isn’t in DVDs. The future is online; the future is in the zeroes and ones; the future is in the Word, and the Word is in Cass’s camera. Don’t know what that means? Me neither, and I’ve watched the damn show! Clearly we need to figure this out together.