John From Cincinnati 

Sundays, 9 p.m.
HBO

Of all the truly freakish and frightening things that happen in John From Cincinnati, the weirdest is that none of the main characters seems fazed by anything. Not when one suddenly levitates 2 inches off the ground, not when a dead bird comes back to life and not even when a person leaves the hospital totally healthy just hours after being declared clinically dead.

Their lack of reaction is so curious that I just had to watch the first three episodes to see what developed. Not only was no explanation forthcoming, I’m fairly sure I understand less about what’s happening than I did when I started. So I can’t wait for show number four in this 10-episode first season.

Your reaction may vary. John From Cincinnati, created by David Milch (Hill Street Blues, Deadwood) and “surf noir” novelist Kem Nunn, is one tough show. The characters — three generations of a family of surfers — are the nastiest, most unsympathetic and profane people this side of Deadwood. Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) is the patriarch, a one-time famous surfer who blew out his knee 20 years ago and is still bitter. His volatile son, Butchie (Brian Van Holt), revolutionized surfing before becoming a heroin addict. Butchie’s 13-year-old son, the emotionless Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), is a budding star surfer, but his grandfather doesn’t want him competing.

They’re miserable and furious. But as Butchie says, “You wanna meet a happy family, watch a Saturday morning cartoon.”

In the hands of lesser actors, this material would be too bleak to watch. But the three leads are captivating, as are Rebecca DeMornay as the family matriarch, Willie Garson as a lawyer and Ed O’Neill as the retired cop/family friend.

And then there’s the title character (played by Austin Nichols), who’s a cross between Rainman and Chauncey Gardner and provides comic relief from this onslaught of anger. But three episodes in, we have no clue who he is. The only thing for sure is, his name isn’t John and he’s not from Cincinnati. How do I know? Not from watching the show. I saw a promo for it on HBO.

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Marc D. Allan

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