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'John From Cincinnati': Surf peaks 

'Deadwood' creator David Milch returns with more high anxiety

HBO gives pride of place to the premiere of its new drama, "John From Cincinnati," scheduling it for 10 p.m. Sunday, June 10, immediately after the finale of "The Sopranos" – the cable channel's flagship show. The two dramas make a contrast like fire and ice, so it's easy to imagine fans of the often violent, funny and operatic "Sopranos" scratching their heads over "John From Cincinnati's" enigmatic, vaguely paranormal portrayal of California surf culture. So-called "surf noir" novelist Kem Nunn teamed with "Deadwood" creator David Milch for "John of Cincinnati," which centers around a family of legendary but unlucky surfers. Elder-statesman athlete Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) shuns the sport, his equally talented son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) feeds a drug habit and 13-year-old grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) wants to get in the game. The show clearly knows the dark side of the pastime, embodied in Luke Perry's sinister entrepreneur, but at times the details are vague. A fan enthuses that Butchie "revolutionized surfing" in the 1990s, without really explaining what that means.

Mellow, Jeff Spicoli-type dudes prove in short supply in the show's corner of Imperial Beach. As you'd expect from a creator of the profane, highly stylized "Deadwood," the ensemble tends to be high-strung, hostile, eccentric. Greenwood provides a solid, steadying presence, but it's hard to tell who overacts the most egregiously: Rebecca de Mornay as Mitch's bitter, brittle wife or Ed O'Neill as a deeply neurotic ex-cop.

The mysterious John Monad (Austin Nichols) provides an oasis of calm and the show's biggest question mark. After appearing from seemingly nowhere, he frequently speaks in mockingbird echoes of however people address him, and strange coincidences and phenomena follow him, including one character's inexplicable levitation and a cockatiel that resurrects itself. John's recurring announcement that "The end is near" could be a portent of some kind of supernatural struggle à la "Heroes" or HBO's "Carnivale."

It seems more likely, though, that "John From Cincinnati's" miracles foreshadow not to some kind of occult apocalypse but a subtler exploration of spirituality and personal renewal. Religion plays an overt role in HBO's polygamy drama "Big Love" (returning for its second season Monday, June 11), and it's as if the cable channel, having drawn America's attention with the rich yet lurid portrayals of crime, sex and death in "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under," is attempting to reach a more spiritual plane.

The high-minded aspirations don't make those shows as easy to like as HBO's juicier, pulpier shows, and "John From Cincinnati's" first episodes prove at once intriguing and frustrating, like "Twin Peaks" minus the comedy and cop-show structure. Then again, "Deadwood" also began as a dense, difficult show, and quite possibly "John From Cincinnati" is slowly building to something unique, possibly of biblical proportions. It's probably no coincidence that the title is just one letter away from the initials "J.C."

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