HBO's Wipeout

I had really high hopes for John From Cincinnati. It was about surfing. It was by the dude who did Deadwood, and some guy named Kem Nunn, who writes "surf noir" novels. There was some kind of magical realism element thrown in, a mysterious stranger, a border town, a kickass theme song by Joe Strummer (Johnny Appleseed, from the excellent Global-a-go-go album, remixed and cut up a little, but still recognizable), hell, there was even Luke Perry, all Dylan McCay squinty-eyed and overdressed and leaning against surfaces in a kind of lazily evil fashion. And most importantly, it was from HBO, a network that hadn't really swung and missed badly since, well, maybe Arliss.

That streak is over. John from Cincinnati is a mess -- cryptic and patchwork and pretty badly acted, without a single relatable or even especially likable character.

The basic idea is that a stranger, John from Cincinnati, wanders into a border town and brings, I think HBO says, "change into the lives of a family of troubled surfers." The stranger is either retarded or autistic or some kind of messiah figure. He repeats everything everybody else says, has a magical credit card with no limit, and kind of stumbles around doing half-retarded and half-godlike things, maybe by accident, maybe not. He's a really annoying character, and I find that I truly don't care if he can bring birds and young surfers back to life, or cause earthquakes, or magic orgasms, or whatever. I just kind of wait until he wanders out of the scene and then almost breath a sigh of relief.

The almost part is because the rest of the characters can be divided into "troubled surfers who growl and scowl and shout a lot" and "side characters who seem like they wandered out of the sequel to Be Cool" (which, I know, was the sequel to Get Shorty, and a profoundly lesser movie, and if you keep going on that downward continuum, these are the characters who would have populated the much worse still third movie).

The troubled surfers are the Yost family -- patriarch Mitch, himself a surfing legend who's career was cut short by a knee injury (Bruce Greenwood, so much better and more fun trying to kill Ashley Judd again and again in my own personal guilty pleasure, Double Jeopardy), Rebecca De Mornay as Mitch's wife Cissy, some bad-acting, wetheaded fellow as their son Butchie, another surf legend, his career cut short by drugs, and Shawnie, Butchie's son and a promising young surfer, who is played by some real kid who comes from a real family of famous and I hope not half as troubled or remotely as angry surfers. With the exception of Shawnie, the Yosts spend all of their time yelling at each other and everybody else, making constipated faces, and kind of spazzing around in an angry fashion, like a group of blinded pitbulls dropped onto a bed of hot coals. It's really no fun to watch at all, and none of them are good enough actors to pull it off without just coming off as a bunch of angry fucks who can't relate to anybody and can't get over their petty grievances with one another, either. They don't really surf much anymore, so that just makes them "troubled" and a massive pain in the ass to be around.

Oh, and Mitch levitates every now and then. That will keep you going for about one episode -- "hey, I wonder why that angry guy was levitating," you'll say. And then after awhile, you'll stop caring. Trust me.

The other characters truly seem like they wandered in from some bad detective/crime movie. There's retired police chief Al Bundy, a couple of bad imitations of mob guys, Luis Guzman wasted in a role as some kind of motel caretaker, Stanford from Sex and the City as a surfing lawyer who does nothing but hang around with Luis Guzman, a really terribly acted and written lottery winner who buys said motel in order to exorcize some kind of childhood demons, a few surf chicks, some Vietnam vet who wanders in and out and is just grumpy and unlikable and inconsequential enough to perhaps be the long lost Yost uncle, and Luke Perry as a scheming surf promoter who really does nothing but lean against walls and squint in what I suppose could be deemed a "scheming" kind of way.

All of these characters kind of bounce in and out -- John acts retarded and mysteriously spiritual or whatever, the Yosts shout and gesture and scowl (and levitate every now and then), the bad character actors do semi-wacky things and get involved in improbable minor subplots, and nothing quite fits together, or even seems like it's likely to fit together anytime soon.

Watching this show, I found myself wondering if this is what bad direction looks like. The writing, while random, and sometimes annoying (see: John), seems like it could work in other circumstances. But the acting is terrible, there's no sense of place, no surfing to speak of, many angry characters and a bunch of profoundly bad ones, nothing to really make you give a shit about anything that's happening. It's like they've bet the farm on the "is John retarded or god" question really carrying the thing along and didn't worry too much about what else is happening on the show, like if the Sopranos had never moved on or built off the "mob head in therapy" thing, or Big Love had stopped at "dude, he's got three wives!"

Maybe this is poor direction, or maybe it's just a shitty idea. In any case, it's not working, and anybody who spends more than a half hour with it is likely to come up with that same conclusion.

Kickass theme song, though, although Joe Strummer deserves so much better.


Mike said...

As a lapsed HBO subscriber, you have no idea how happy this makes me, Dave. One less show I can be sad about missing.

Though the truth is I'm not sad about missing Big Love, either. I watched a few of the season one episodes and found I didn't really care much about the characters. Maybe I just don't dig Mormons. Or maybe I've read too much about real polygamy to buy the "kooky but harmless dude with three wives" angle.

Then again, I know being a mobster isn't exactly a great moral choice, yet I sympathized with a lot of the Sopranos characters. So, yeah, maybe I just don't dig Mormons.

I am happy that Luke Perry is getting work again, though. He must be pretty old these days, considering he was approximately 37 when he played a high school senior on 90210.

char said...

I watched JFC for about 2 seconds. What a terrible show! What happened to Rebecca DeMornay? I used to enjoy her on-screen. Now she looks and sounds like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Anne said...

I'm sorry to hear John from Cincinnati was a wipeout- I had no idea it was being written by Kem Nunn- but you gotta give Kem Nunn another chance. He is THE master of surfer noir. It makes me cringe to hear you call him "some guy..." GO read "Tapping the Source" and "The Dogs of Winter." You do not have to be a surfing aficionado to appreciate them, but it wouldn't hurt, and the man can TELL a story. No gimmicks, no magically real tricks, just damn good writing.