With Sopranos ending, critics feasting on John



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John From Cincinnati executive producer David Milch, left, and Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood.


AN END AND A BEGINNING: The final episode of The Sopranos aired last night – more on that later – followed by the first episode of John From Cincinnati, the new series by Deadwood creator David Milch, and HBO’s chosen successor to the Sopranos’ Sunday night time slot. The cable network has a lot riding on the show, and I can say honestly that I can’t see any way they won’t be disappointed.

The show does its damnedest not to meet the viewer halfway, from the start. The first character we meet is Luke Perry’s Linc, a surfing entrepreneur who parks his leviathan SUV near the beach and walks down to the shore to watch Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) surf the morning waves. The next character we meet is the eponymous John, who suddenly appears behind Linc’s shoulder to tell Mitch, a onetime surfing legend now retired, that he should get in the game, before getting brushed off. His gnomic, parrot-like delivery of his lines suggests either autism or alien visitation, but he’s one of the few characters that doesn’t speak in a richly profane baroque rage that’s the show’s only legacy from Deadwood.

There’s a brief, furious exchange between Linc and Mitch about Butch and Shaun, two other characters who it takes us a couple of scenes to learn are Mitch’s son and grandson, respectively. After this, Link largely disappears from the rest of the debut episode, a momentary red herring, and the overwhelming feeling one gets from the first long scene of the show is bafflement, and that’s before Mitch, alone behind his woody station wagon, suddenly levitates off the ground.

The show has been praised for its rare authenticity to surfing and surf culture by surf writer Thad Ziolkowski in Slate magazine, and pro surfers Kieran Horn, Homer Henard and Omar Etcheverry in online sports mag Lat34.com. One of the few flaws, according to Henard, was Greyson Fletcher as the budding surf legend Shaun. “He was like a robot,” said Henard. “Surf. Huntington. Parakeet. Too one-dimensional, like a little robot on phase one.” What he said.

Critics have been harsher. “Most viewers, I suspect, will react to the opening episode with confusion, impatience, dissatisfaction, or even an unimpressed shrug,” wrote David Bianculli in the New York Daily News. “Where the narrative flows is anybody's guess,” went a review in Variety, “and after three hallucinatory hours, I'm not really sure I care.” “Any die-hard Deadwood fan interested in keeping the veins in his forehead intact should not bother with it,” wrote Melanie McFarland of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Watching it will only make you want to hurt your television, and it's unkind and quite expensive to punish the messenger so harshly.”

Personally, I was both confused and fascinated. I’ll give HBO credit for debuting the show in the first days of summer – I can’t imagine such a loose, sun-baked story resonating much in the dim, frigid light of January. Just don’t ask me what it all means.