Reflections on Human Frailty: Life, Death and My HBO Addiction

JOhn from Cincinnati

Let me begin with a confession, my wife and I have an addiction. Or maybe it's just the closest thing we have to a date night or family ritual. For the past several years, every Sunday evening from roughly 9pm on, we've done everything in our power to find ourselves parked on the couch or sitting up in bed, tuned in to HBO.

While the shows have changed, the writing and characters have remained troublingly endearing.

There have been sitcoms full of the seductions of celebrity culture, such as Sex and the City and it’s more recent male equivalent, the Mark Wahlberg-inspired Entourage.

In contrast, there have been a series of heavier, dare I say "darker," series; including Carnival, The Station Agent, The Sopranos, Big Love, The Wire and the deliberate meditation on death, Six Feet Under, from which too many scenes to mention remain fixed in my imagination...

But as this summer approached I began to have pre-withdrawal symptoms. The Sopranos was coming to a final end - an end which would disappoint us all; and The Wire was not scheduled to return for at least another few months. This meant that I would have to be sustained through the summer heat by thirty minutes of the superficial Hollywood stylings of Vinny Chase and his motley crew. I'm ambivalently loyal at best to Big Love, but that’s a moot point since its recent move to Monday nights.

Do you feel my pain yet?

Anyway, much to my surprise, my cravings have been staved off by the newest arrival to HBO's portfolio: enter John From Cincinnati, the story of a ghost town of a surfing community in Southern California. Never mind that my race politics continue to complain, "No Black People?" - it's at least more plausible than the paucity of color in older shows set in New York City (i.e. Friends and Seinfeld).

Nonetheless, this show has it all.

"Great" Acting: Bruce Greenwood (Double Jeopardy et al) Rebecca DeMornay (continuing her work in The Lords of Doggtown), and two 90s sitcoms legends: Ed O'Neill (best known as Al Bundy) and 90210's Luke Perry.

Painful Dialogue: Actually it’s more like juxtaposed monologues, full of phrases that are fragmented and incomplete, which quickly turn into enraged outbursts that produce emotional shutdowns on the part of their “victim.” These are truncated conversations in which it’s never quite clear that any shared meaning is achieved. This, in fact, is what brings the community of Imperial Beach together - their shared confusion amidst efforts to make sense of the mess of their lives. Thus far the show's clearest human connection – where folks actually appear to be on the same page – is between trickster-figure John and surf-prodigy Shaunie Yost, in the form of a silent session of "scratch feet on ground and spin around" that produces mutual smiles. Maybe this a nod to Gospel stories of Jesus' privileging child-like faith? Who knows, but here are a few of my favorite “religious” phrases thus far from the show’s namesake:

John- “the end is near,” “See God...” and “We are all frail vessels... Room 24 will give up its dead and the debt shall be forgiven.”

and one from Luke Perry's Link- “Trust the devil you know, Mitch.”

Spirituality: there are resurrections, miraculous healings, ghosts, trances, visions and levitating bodies that will capture the attention of religious traditionalists, spiritual searchers and those just fascinated by "paranormal" occurrences.

Human Complexity: All of the deep questions, suffering, loss, death, dying dreams, community, family conflicts, and, of course, drugs, rock and roll and sex (strangely without gratuitous sex scenes). All without the aid of black and brown youth and their blasted rap music! Who knew?

A couple of closing thoughts: Set in Imperial Beach, CA - which I'm told is the first U.S. outpost north of Tijuana - Mexico is the shows constant “absent presence.” The show’s only non-white characters are either Spanish-speaking or speaking with Spanish accents, presumably of Mexican descent, and they show up as prisoners, gang-bangers and "illegals" shuffling just north of the border. The one recurring non-white character is the manager (played by Luis Guzman) of a motel with only one tenant - the squatting, drug-addicted surf legend, Butchie Yost. Between Butchie and the motel’s psychotic owner, poor Ramon’s day job is simply to clean up the shattered lives of broken white folks. While he is no “Magical Negro” - a character ubiquitious to the big screen (i.e. Will Smith in Bagger Vance, Michael Clark Duncan in The Green Mile, etc) making possible the salvation of "the man," there is a clear family resemblance. The only magical person on this show is John (from Cincinnati?) , who arrives mysteriously from nowhere, produces cash from empty pockets that always corresponds to the dollar amount requested of him, carries a platinum credit card incapable of being maxed out, and enables others to performer miraculous healings.

A Few Questions

While the show’s driving "religious" metaphor is clearly a new age spirituality of the surf, does John represent a subtle endorsement of the popular prosperity gospel? Or perhaps the writers are aware of the historical overlap in the United States between these two traditions?Does the show’s disjointed, never resolved dialogue denote a nod to a postmodern spirituality that accents fissures and breaks and takes a nod from Rilke’s word’s to the young poet, “love the questions…” - community of seeker-surfers?

Must focusing upon spirituality (i.e. John) require a denial or downplaying of politics (i.e. U.S. immigration policy)? Must they be mutually exclusive? Must spirituality, as a contrast to both the religious right and left, be so deeply personal at the expense of emptying out any political consciousness? Or maybe the writers mean to critique the blind-spots of white privilege that shape the largely self-absorbed concerns of the show’s central figures, almost all of whom find it difficult to step out beyond their individual agendas.

These are just a few preliminary thoughts on a great new show. I know there must be some book out there on surfing as a metaphor for life, but for now I have refrained from researching it, content simply to ride the wave of my new HBO fix. Check it out and let me know what you think.

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