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In the new HBO series, “John from Cincinnati,” The Yosts are a wildly dysfunctional, furious family of three generations of surfers in California, near the Mexico border. We meet the Yosts in the midst of a meltdown that’s been going on for years—they’ve been wrecked by injury, drugs, rage, and surfing.
A stranger, John, has just come to town. Dressed in casual L.A.-chic linen and hunky in a young Depp sort of way, John seems to have come just for them: His first words to father Yost, a former surf-star with a blown-out knee, are, “You should get back in the game, Mitch Yost.” And things—puzzling, paranormal things—start to happen.
There’s the levitating you may have seen in the ads, but there’s also a rearranging of a bitter crust of hate and anger. John, whoever he is, seems to be working some sort of magic. A savant/cosmic Christ figure, John is allegedly from Cincinnati –J.C., get it?—but it’s likely that he’s from nowhere near Ohio, or, one begins to suspect, Earth.
The show’s creators went to great lengths to get the surfing right. And as far as my former Maui resident eye can tell, they have. I’m a sucker for good waves and the people obsessed with them. They even let us forget that surfing is a great big metaphor for life, and let us watch the waves and how their actual oceanic power has quite literally eroded this family.
If I’m a sucker for surfing, then I’m down for the count for stories of transformation.
Especially good ones that cause messy, real change in multi-dimensional characters. Around episode three, an underlying benevolence begins to emerge from fuming chaos. A sweetness, a goodness, a magic-is-realness. “People” magazine called it “precious.” I call it potential.
Has HBO done what “Peaceful Warrior,” “What the Bleep?” and “Celestine Prophecy” could not? Created a compelling, character-driven foray into the mystical divine? John, of few words, repeats two things: “What do you want?” to people who seem to be essentially good and “The end is near” to those who do not. He also answers questions by repeating them, as a kind of Zen mirror. It’s a testament to both the writers and actor that this is more fascinating than annoying to watch.
The cast is full of faces you knew once. Rebecca De Mornay (from “Risky Business”) is angry mom Yost; the dad from “Married… with Children,” Ed O’Neill, is a kooky family friend; and Luke Perry (“90210,” babay) is a sketchy surfer’s agent. The sleeper star here is the youngest Yost, Shaun, a wonderfully subdued Greyson Fletcher.
Whether this show will give us what we want or have an end that is near is unclear, but by the end of the third episode I definitely wanted more of J.C., the explosive, changing surfers, and a mystical magic of uncertain origins.

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