<EM>John from Cincinnati</EM> John from Cincinnati

When you work on a show like HBO's John from Cincinnati (Sundays at 9 pm/ET), it can screw with your head. Recently, Austin Nichols, who plays the enigmatic John, was memorizing lines for a scene when he had a premonition. "I knew in my heart that I should scream, ‘Stare me down!'" he says. "The next morning when I arrived to shoot the scene, I looked at the revised script and those exact words were staring me in the face. It took my breath away."

HBO hopes its surreal new drama has the same "Whoa, dude!" effect on viewers. Set in the border town of Imperial Beach, Calif., about 130 miles south of L.A., John rips through the turbulent waters of three generations of a down-in-the-dumps surfing family — grandparents Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) and Cissy Yost (Rebecca De Mornay), their druggie son Butchie (Brian Van Holt), and his surfing-prodigy son Shaun (Greyson Fletcher). They encounter John, a bizarre Elvis look-alike entity who is either an alien, an angel, an idiot savant or none of the above. The only thing we know for certain, says Ed O'Neill, who plays Bill, a friend of the Yost family, "is that his name ain't John, and he's not from Cincinnati."

John starts off weird and doesn't get any saner. Mitch meets John on the beach and soon finds himself occasionally floating above the ground like a human hovercraft. Meanwhile, an unstable lottery winner named Barry (Matt Winston) moves to town to avenge a wrong done to him by the Yosts more than 20 years ago. Add to the mix a sleazy surfing sponsor (Luke Perry) who wants to sign Shaun, a balding drug dealer (Dayton Callie) trying to shake down Butchie, and a surfing competition with a shocking outcome... and you get the picture.

The surfing safari is led by David Milch, a junkie-turned-TV-writing legend who's behind such classics as NYPD Blue and Deadwood. John is loosely inspired by the philosophies of William James and Gustav Fechner (both were early influences on modern psychology) and by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it was the execs at HBO who asked Milch if he could set it amid a surfing subculture.

So he donned his writing wet suit, teamed up with surf noir author Kem Nunn, and surrounded himself with a team of rad surfing consultants. The result? A show that captures the dirty, dark underworld of surfing. "It's the most authentic show I've ever seen about surfing," says Van Holt, who grew up hanging ten in Huntington Beach. "From the setting to how people talk — they don't look or sound like your poster child Orange County/Blue Crush pretty people."

Milch was so focused on getting it right that after meeting two of his potential surfing consultants in person, he cast them in major parts: Fletcher is a 16-year-old skateboarding phenom (and son of surfing revolutionary Christian Fletcher) who's never acted before, and Keala Kennelly, who plays surf-shop board shaper Kai, was the second-best female surfer in the world last year. Even the show's "real" actors have aquatic chops. Nichols is the son of a surfing dad and a champion waterskiing mom. Van Holt used to surf competitively but quit after many of his board buddies became drug addicts. "So I'm not a junkie but I play one on TV," he says.

If all this seems rather odd, that's just the way Milch likes it. He usually gives his actors their scenes the day they're shooting so they have zero time to prepare. "Last I heard, you don't get too many rehearsals in life," he says with a wicked smile. De Mornay recalls being handed a big speech as she was walking to the set. "I've never worked like this before. It was scary in the beginning," she says. "I know where my character, Cissy, started, but I have no idea where she's going."

She's not alone. Ask any cast member to explain the show's many mysteries and you're likely to get a scratch of the head. Who is John, for example? And what do all his ominous phrases ("The end is near") mean? Why does Mitch levitate? And what's the deal with Zippy, Bill's miraculous parrot?

The cast has spent countless hours debating these issues. "Every day we go to the bar and talk about the day's craziness," says Van Holt. So is the show destined to be another Lost, which keeps raising questions while offering few answers? Milch will say only this: "More will be revealed, but that doesn't mean I know what it's going to be."

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