"The sea," said pilot and author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, "does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach -- waiting for a gift from the sea."
In the opening scene of HBO's 10-episode drama "John From Cincinnati," premiering Sunday, June 10, Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), a retired surfing giant, is hanging 10 in the waves of Imperial Beach, a stretch of beautiful, polluted California seashore between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Between one film frame and the next, there appears a mysterious young man (Austin Nichols) with James Dean hair and a jacket with an upturned collar.
A few minutes later, Mitch is floating several inches above the ground. And that's just the beginning. Of course, whether this qualifies as a gift or not is yet to be determined.
The product of collaboration between acclaimed TV writer David Milch ("NYPD Blue," "Deadwood") and celebrated "surf noir" novelist Kem Nunn, "John From Cincinnati" is, on its face, the story of how the arrival of John Monad (Google that last name, if you're curious) upends the reality of a wayward, multigenerational surfing clan.
But Mitch, the first to experience this, announces to wife Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay) that he has a brain tumor.
"If reality does get flipped," Milch says, "it doesn't stay flipped long. You pathologize it, discount it in other ways."
Also new on the scene is Barry Cunningham (Matt Winston), a former Imperial Beach resident who has come to face some old demons in a place that witnessed his childhood humiliations.
"In superbroad terms," Greenwood says, "it about an extended family of incredibly dysfunctional people who are bent on making wrong decision after wrong decision, and into their midst comes a guy who changes the way they behave, in a way they can't quite put a finger on.
"He doesn't help them make better decisions, at least not this season. He was described to me as an emissary, or not an emissary, a figure, an observer from ... never mind. I won't even go there. It'll just boil it down to something simple, which it isn't."
Under the surface, several themes blend and shift. A seedy, rough surfing and biker town in the '70s (Mitch Yost's heyday), Imperial Beach -- whose motto is "America's Most South-Westernly City" -- is working to rebuild itself, clean up its waters -- befouled by Tijuana River runoff -- and deal with the influx of illegal aliens, some of whom run past in the show's opening frames. It lies both on the rim of the continent and in the bottom corner of the nation.
"That's the other thing," Nichols says, "all these edges. It's like the edge, the border, the edge of the continent where the land meets water. Then also, I think about all these characters living right on the edge. It's almost as though everybody was right at the precipice and about to fall when John arrives."
Many of the show's characters used to be something else. Mitch was once a champion, but a knee injury forced him to retire; his adult son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), changed the sport of surfing but succumbed to drugs; family friend Bill (Ed O'Neill) has trouble dealing with being retired from the police force; Vietnam Joe (Jim Beaver) is a pot-smoking ex-soldier who supplements his income by ferrying illegals along on their journey.
Representing the future is Butchie's son, 13-year-old Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), a talented skateboarder and up-and-coming surfer who, if he overcomes Mitch's objections -- his father's legal troubles landed him in his grandparents' custody -- could return the family to its lofty position in the surfing world.
(It's reportedly a coincidence that Fletcher is the son of Christian Fletcher, a revolutionary surfer who turned to drugs, and who is also the scion of a respected surfing clan. The Fletchers have contributed suggestions to the show, but this is not their life story.)
Also starring are surfer-turned-actress Keala Kennelly as surf-shop employee Kai; Luke Perry ("Beverly Hills, 90210") as surf entrepreneur Linc; Luiz Guzman as motel manager Ramon; and Willie Garson as surfing attorney Meyer Dickstein.
"In some way or another," says Nichols, a former champion water-skier, "every character has had their badge revoked. If you retire, you're in limbo for a while. You're trying to find the next chapter. It's like, what do I do now? Everybody's trying to earn a new badge."
"It's people with no money and no direction," says Greenwood, a former competitive skier, "who allow chaos -- physical, emotional and professional -- to completely rule their decision-making. That kind of chaos just breeds confusion and anger and dysfunction and heartache, and occasionally allows for a glimmer of hope that's crushed by events almost the moment you feel it. It's a dark world there.
"David's taking us into this dark place with the idea that you've got to get really dark before the light finally reaches you, before it will make sense. It's pretty dark. It's also pretty funny."
The term "surf noir" feels contradictory, since "film noir" means "black film" and stands for a genre that often exists in the shadows, in rain-slicked alleyways, in lonely diners. But here, the darkness in the human soul plays out underneath brilliant California sunshine that pours down on golden sand, golden skin and blue waves.
"I suppose it's sunny," Greenwood says, "if you've parked your car on the way to work and you stop for 10 minutes, and you watch the guys out there surfing in the morning sun. This is well-lit noir."