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TELEVISION REVIEW

Pretensions sink surfers in 'John From Cincinnati'

Watching HBO's surfing drama "John From Cincinnati" is like sitting through a bad play at a tiny experimental theater. The dialogue is loud pretentious nonsense signifying nothing but the creative dangers of mimicking Sam Shepard , Edward Albee , and Samuel Beckett . And the acting is a psychic traffic jam, because the actors don't understand their characters, because their characters are no more than vague symbols of -- what? -- being, nothingness, and the fury of being nothing.

And as the actors grimace and squeeze out Existential Rage Against the Machine, using the f-word with much forced casualness, you, too, want to rage against a machine -- the clock, which is defining your waste of time.

In short, if Gary Busey were a TV series, he would be "John From Cincinnati." A few viewers may rationalize this anger opera from "Deadwood" creator David Milch and surf novelist Kem Nunn as a crypto-religious masterpiece that's challengingly mysterious. Others, myself included, will only feel assaulted by the bombast. Sitting through three episodes made me feel sad for HBO, which has slotted the "John" premiere after the "Sopranos" finale hoping it will persuade subscribers to keep the pay channel. The show, Sunday at 10, is more likely to send viewers running for Excedrin PM and a pair of foam ear plugs. Good thing "Entourage" and "Big Love" return next week.

The bottom line for me was not the self-importance and auto-eroticism of the writing, but the emptiness of the characters. Burdened with mannered Milchian lines such as "You don't hold onto a bird once it's passed," and "Some things I know and some things I don't," the show's Southern Californians are merely mouthpieces and constructs. I didn't care about a single one of them, not even the pet bird Zippy, who dies and then is reborn to turd madly in his owner's pocket -- as a reminder, no doubt, of being, and nothingness, and re-being, and re-despoiling of beingness, or something.

The focus of the show, and of the border town of Imperial Beach, is the Yost family, three generations of expert surfers. And by surfers, of course, I mean riders on the storm of time and space that is now -- and now -- and now. Anyway, Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) is the grandfather, the legendary surfer whose knee injury has doomed him to a life of profanity. Now he pouts and argues with his wife, Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay ), with whom he has loveless sex. He also thinks he has cancer "right here in my brain" because he feels himself levitating -- I mean, rising above the dirt of this cruddy, damaged world in some kind of holy grace.

Mitch -- not to be confused with Milch? -- also spews at his son, and you can't blame him. Butchie Yost (Brian Van Holt ) is an explosive wastrel who threw away his surfing career on drugs. Now Butchie squats in a dilapidated motel -- er, I mean, a dark shelter from pain -- and mixes with drug pushers and the motel staff, including the doting Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson ). Aware of his uselessness, Butchie has put his gentle teen son, Shaun (Greyson Fletcher ), also a surfer, into his parents' custody. Does sweet Shaun have a mother, or . . . is . . . he . . . everyone's . . . child?

And who is John from Cincinnati (Austin Nichols ), who appears among the Yosts one day and triggers magical events? He is Us, as You are We, as They are Me and we are all together. John has no identity of his own; he mostly repeats what others say, like a mirror -- excuse me, I mean a Mirror. His last name is Monad, a word that, in my dictionary, means "an elementary individual substance which reflects the order of the world and from which material properties are derived." So he's one of those, robotically reciting "Mitch Yost should get back in the game" or "See God" and sounding like a parking-lot ticket machine. While the show has a leftover-1960s feel, with an old VW bus and a crazed war veteran named Vietnam Joe, John looks much more like a 1950s teen idol.

The actors do try, and they try hard, perhaps no one more than Ed O'Neill , who plays Bill Jacks, a former cop and current Yost friend. O'Neill gets wildly Theatre-y as he rants about nothing to no one in particular, or to his parrots and cockatoos, or to all of humankind, it's hard to tell.

Luke Perry is on "John," too, but he's easy to overlook. Since his Linc Stark is an agent who represents Commercialism and Greed, he is not given the kind of big, elevated lines that require lots of spit and wind. And on "John From Cincinnati," my friends, all the answers -- if there are answers to be found -- are blowing in the wind.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

'Related'

John From Cincinnati

Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Rebecca De Mornay, Brian Van Holt, Austin Nichols, Ed O'Neill, Willie Garson, Luke Perry

On: HBO

Time: Sunday night, 10-11

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