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On Surf Noir, HBO Addiction, and John From Cincinnati

I've been watching HBO's John From Cincinnati with both great interest and confusion. Initially, I was interested because it's set right down the road in Imperial Beach . I also liked that it was described as "surf noir." I wasn't sure what that meant, and imagined lots of smoking under dark piers and a patois big enough to include patsy, dame, and gnarly. It turns out John from Cincinnati is much harder to pin down.

The show comes from trusted sources: HBO, David Milch (creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood ) and Kem Nunn , a "surf noir" novelist and a past guest on KPBS. I started watching hopeful and eager for a new HBO addiction to get me through until The Wire's fifth season starts in January, 2008 (oh, what I wouldn't do for a time machine !).

A levitating Mitch Yost, from HBO's John From Cincinnati.

I love John From Cincinnati's Imperial Beach setting and atmosphere. It's full of trashy beach cottages, run down surf shops, junkie inhabited hotel rooms, and beat-up trailers. Everyone seems to sleep on a mattress on the floor. If you're tired of the rampant decor porn in today's mainstream Hollywood releases, John From Cincinnati is the perfect antidote. You definitely won't want to shop after viewing.

My problem with the show is in the writing and character development. The storytelling is frenzied and obtuse. I don't understand what motivates many of the characters and, for that matter, why there has to be so many characters.

Clearly, Milch wants us to believe that spiritual forces are at work and that's why people are levitating and miraculously healing. I'm willing to suspend disbelief, but I need some pay-offs along the way. I need to care about some of these people. I need a window into their inner lives. I'd like to see them thinking now and again, not just reacting.

Also, the characters' reactions don't seem to match the plot points. Cissy , the matriarch of the troubled Yost family, and played with gusto by Rebecca De Mornay , spent most of the last episode furious to the point of contemplating murder. I never really understood why she was THAT angry. On the other hand, young Shaun Yost returns from the dead after a surfing accident and everyone seems to take it in stride. What gives?

Milch and Nunn must have a grand plan and I'm going to stick around to find out what it is. In the meantime, I think a stroll down the Imperial Beach Pier is in order, just to soak up more of the atmosphere.

-- Angela Carone produces arts and culture programming for These Days and Culture Lust . Please read our guidelines before posting comments.