HBO has made a lot of great series, and some grandly ambitious ones that ended up being not so great. What it hasn't consistently done, though, is release strong DVD compilations of its series.
"John From Cincinnati" falls into the latter two categories. While the series, David Milch's follow-up to "Deadwood," improves on second viewing and by virtue of seeing multiple episodes in one sitting, even if it doesn't get much easier to decipher. The smattering of extras don't help much either.
The virtues of "John From Cincinnati" lie largely in a cast that includes Austin Nichols as the title character, Rebecca De Mornay in maybe the best role of her career, Bruce Greenwood, Luke Perry, Emily Rose, Brian Van Holt, Ed O'Neill, Jim Beaver, Willie Garson and Keala Kennelly. Several of the regulars and recurring characters are Milch veterans, and they handle his particular brand of dialogue with great skill.
To what end, though, is a question that doesn't really get answered. John Monad is perhaps a prophet, perhaps an angel (in a commentary track, Milch describes him as "an extraterrestrial"), maybe even Jesus, but he's definitely not outside the realm of our everyday experience. DVD viewing allows for a clearer view of the effect he has on the surfing Yost family of Imperial Beach, Calif., and the people around them, as well as some of the central questions Milch wants to pose, ones of perception and living life on the margins and the ways we either do or don't admit to the miracles around us.
Are those things the stuff of great television? Maybe, but not always in this show, which too often gets too wrapped up in its own philosophizing to keep us glued in. But for at least attacking some of those questions, and delivering a number of transcendent moments even as it wandered and meandered all over the map, "John From Cincinnati" at least deserves credit as a compelling failure.
DVD Bonus Features
The Good: A pair of commentary tracks from Milch, on the first and last episodes, make the inscrutable somewhat more scrutable, though listening to the fearsomely intelligent creator is a chore unto itself. He expounds on everything from his casting choices -- "I tried to cast people who were recognizable from a single role ... as a way of mobilizing the viewers' sense of the possible arbitrariness of how we remember things" -- to the fact that he once dropped acid every day for three months ("That helped my brain power a lot"). The other extra, in which Milch communicates the meaning behind John's dream sequence/sermon in episode six to the cast, is interesting for the insight it offers into the hands-on way Milch works.
The Bad: Those three items are all we get -- no making-of, no exploration of the real Imperial Beach and the surf culture that forms the backdrop to the series, nothing else. Creators of art (or television shows) are not obligated to explain their work to us, but some attempt to expand on the show's context would have been nice.
The price: $59.98