Reading the Book of John (from Cincinnati)

Curator's Note

Despite being a lifelong surfer, I managed to pick an occupation where that qualifies for less cultural capital than being a Star Trek fan. Neither Hollywood nor cultural critics have been kind to surfing. Frederick Kohner, who wrote Gidget, was a member of the Frankfurt School. That book (and the movies and TV show that followed) gets credit for turning surfing into a bankable Hollywood fantasy world. In the late 50s, 60s, and 70s surf movie-going was an important subcultural practice, packing gymnasiums and auditoriums with rowdy surfers hooting at movies made for surfers, by surfers. But there’s been very little mainstream film or television that took surfing seriously.

So, I was highly optimistic when I heard David Milch was collaborating with Kem Nunn on a surfing-themed program for HBO, John from Cincinnati. Even when it meant my much-loved Deadwood was going to be sacrificed in the name of John, I kept optimistic. And now that John is no more, one season come and gone without renewal, it’s time to come to terms with what John meant to two divergent worlds: surfing culture and television culture.

Perhaps what John from Cincinnati did most successfully was mimic the look of those early surf films in its opening credits. Indeed, many of the shots are from classic surf films, and the title design mimics those as well. For a surfer, part of the fun of John is making all the connections between the text and the surf culture references. Knowing, for example, that Greyson Fletcher’s real dad Christian is partial inspiration for Greyson’s TV dad, Butchie.

To television culture, I fear there is little to recommend him, save being another example of “what went wrong” at HBO. Here’s another suggestion: John was an earnest attempt at modernist television.

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