John from Cincinnati‘s Prophecy is Kept Alive Online

John from Cincinnati, HBO’s quirky show about a stranger who arrives in a California beach town and leaves a series of miracles in his wake, has been canceled just two days after the final episode of the season aired, according to the Hollywood Reporter, confirming rumors published last week. The show, which was the brainchild of television legend David Milch and was greenlit by former CEO Chris Albrecht, was received coolly by both critics and audiences. Its debut after The Sopranos finale was disappointing, and after that its ratings slid precipitously.

With a narrative structure that made Memento feel straightforward and accessible, John from Cincinnati‘s surfer milieu was unable to bring the intended 18-to-34-year old male demographic past the spiritual tone and apocalyptic theme. Still, it had its passionate acolytes, and like Memento, there are keys to the story online. This clip of an apologetic ghost, released a day before the series was officially declared dead, makes me wonder if the show’s creators weren’t trying to speak to us from beyond the grave.

The Web played a role in the plot early on, such as with the fan site maintained by the character Dwayne (Matthew Maher) for the fictional family of surfing legends the Yosts. The young prodigy, Shaun Yost (played by Greyson Fletcher, real-life surf prodigy and son of surfing legend Christian Fletcher), is signed to a sponsorship deal by beachwear retailer Stinkweed on the strength of his lineage and amateur highlight reel. Levitating patriarch Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) even lent his celebrity to real-life conservation charity WiLDCOAST.

A number of characters can also be found on YouTube, including Shaun, Mitch, surfing lawyer Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson, in a star turn online) and title character John Monad (Austin Nichols), whose cryptic video messages were published on YouTube on the same day they appeared in the episodes. The Stinkweed site also features video of real-life surfers doing promotional work for the fictional brand.

All of this blending of fiction and non-fiction, online and offline has become de rigeur in the push to promote television projects online. There were a number of easter-egg laden sites for ABC’s Lost, for example; Showtime’s The L Word wrote a companion site into the show, and NBC’s Heroes has a character with mystical powers over the Internet akin to John’s.

But this was relatively new territory for HBO, and certainly for Milch. As one poster in the unofficial show forum at Television Without Pity commented, “Looks like the HBO Web monkeys have been busy.” Marc Ostrick was brought on in pre-production and set loose with a camera to film segments intended exclusively for the Web, and according to his interview with Variety’s Cynthia Littleton, fans can expect more video to be posted even now that the series is over — the fictional Mitch and Dwayne have appeared in HBO’s discussion boards posting links to new clips as recently as today.

Certainly it’s something to keep fans interested until the release of the DVD and the inevitable bonus features, which is where HBO stands the best chance of recouping the network’s investment. It’s interesting to see Milch, who claims to “embody the mystification of the businessman, the paradox of the businessman in dealing with the creative people,” so willingly blur the diagetic lines between the narrative and the promotional campaign. But these are desperate times, in Milch’s opinion, which would excuse desperate measures.

In the final episode, a divinely inspired used car salesman tells the characters who manage Stinkweed, “Zeros and goddamn ones is what to turn the both of your gifts to…and not one damn minute to waste!” Which could be a statement about spreading the gospel of salvation before the coming of the rapture, or a coded exhortation to network executives searching for an online business model they can find faith in.