Friday, April 16, 2010

TV on DVD: Californication (The Complete First Season)

Creator: Tom Kapinos
Starring: David Duchovny, Natascha McElhone, Pamela Adlon, Madeliene Martin, Evan Handler, Madeline Zima, Rachel Miner
Original Air Date: 2007

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Californication is a show with a premise that's somewhat difficult to sell: A washed-up writer has to deal with beautiful women throwing themselves at him everywhere he goes. Poor guy. You can see how this concept is problematic on the believability scale and presents a challenge to audiences who might want to empathize with the main character. Yet the series still manages to be compulsively entertaining to the point where it's very nearly addictive and I think it's because we're NOT asked to empathize with this guy or relate to him on any level. We just need to laugh at and with him. He is what he is, which is one of those likable unlikable TV characters whose life is one mess after another and it's fun seeing him try to clean it up. The show features the same kind of self absorbed L.A. characters as Entourage but reminded me also of Weeds, if marijuana was replaced with sex. This is more polarizing than those two because of the subject matter but I liked it much more and it's laid back humor went down easy for me without feeling forced.

Self-absorbed novelist Hank Moody (Duchovny) is in a slump, both personally and professionally. Nursing a serious case of writer's block, his last successful novel, "God Hates Us All" was adapted into the terrible but commercially successful romantic comedy called A Crazy Little Thing Called Love starring two actors ubiquitously referred to as "Tom and Katie." His move from New York to L.A. a couple of years ago with longtime girlfriend Karen (Natascha McElhone) and their daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin) has been a disaster with Karen now engaged to publisher Bill (Damian Young) and even his loyal agent Charlie (Evan Handler) doubting his ability to produce another worthwhile piece of writing. Depressed and full of self-loathing Hank plunges himself into a hedonsitic lifestyle that includes sleeping with every woman he sees and experimenting frequently with drugs and alcohol. The former is the driving force of the entire series when in the pilot he "successfully" scores with a girl named Mia (Madeline Zima) at the bookstore impressed by his fleeting fame. Two problems:

1. She's sixteen.
2. She's Bill's Daughter.

The manipulative Mia hangs the information of Hank's statutory rape over his head as blackmail in funny and sometimes downright creepy ways throughout the season, coming to a head in the finale. That and Hank's self-destructive sexual behavior prove to be a big roadblock in his goal of winning Karen back from Bill and forging a meaningful relationship with his daughter. The show is nothing else if not timely...and a little controversial. The term "sex addict" has entered the lexicon in a big way lately and has been thrown around (somewhat haphazardly) to describe the antics of unfaithful, two-timing public figures like Tiger Woods and Jesse James. But given that Hank was dumped and actually cheated on this show still presents the profile of a character who really does seem to be a sex addict, not just someone who cheats, checks into a clinic for P.R. and gets labeled with the buzz word. He actually needs this to function in his everyday life which creates an interesting dynamic for the show, especially in light of the fact he's trying to re-build his family and jump start a dead career. His encounters (physical and otherwise) with these various women provide the laughs on the show while his attempts to straighten himself out into a well adjusted father and potential husband for Karen supply the drama.

Despite all the hype and critical acclaim surrounding this series, I was apprehensive going in because I'd heard a lot of negative feedback from those who saw it and was never that big of a David Duchovny fan to begin with. When you see a performer do the same act for a decade straight it becomes easier to believe that they're not capable of anything else. After watching Duchovny in this I now understand how it can be a nightmare for an actor to be trapped in a specific role and how it can annoy the hell out of them having fans constantly reminding them of it. As droll F.B.I. Agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files he helped cured insomnia for viewers for nearly ten years because that's what was required of him. None of this was his fault but the part stayed in one key throughout, depriving him the opportunity to display much range (or emotion) at all. This role is the complete polar opposite of that in exposing a gift for dry comedy we didn't know he had and stands as a great example why actors are leaving film for more creative opportunities in television.

It's a little bit of a stretch (okay, a big stretch) to believe this guy gets laid every night of the week using the tactics he does, but hey, you never know. It is L.A. It's easier to see how Duchovny got so caught up in playing such a fun character that it spilled over into his personal life. Telling his wife he was researching the role probably isn't an excuse that went over well, but he somehow takes this self-centered, egotistical jerk and makes us root for him. It helps that in a cesspool of jerks Hank's the antihero, whether it's saving Mia from her coke snorting creative writing teacher or putting Bill in his place he always seems like the lesser of two evils in any situation. His relationship with Bill is particularly interesting because they're not exactly enemies but you almost get the impression that they can't survive without tormenting each other.

That Duchovny won the Golden Globe for this instead of The X-Flies proves at least every once in a while they get it right. But as good as his performance is, the three actresses supporting him are equally impressive, especially Madeline Zima whose playful, knowing approach to Mia allows us to see the humor and silliness in the season's most uncomfortable storyline. As Becca, Madeleine Martin (who eerily resembles Emily the Strange) has an unaffected, very matter of fact way about her that you don't see very often in child actresses. Everything just seems to bounce off her, until every once in a while she offers little glimpses of just how much Hank's behavior hurts. Never shocked, she always seems to be in a constant state of resigned disappointment that he can't get his act together. And like Duchovny, the well traveled (but unfairly unknown) Natascha McElhone is finally afforded the opportunity to play the kind of multi-dimensional character her film roles wouldn't allow. What there are in the way of guest spots include Judy Greer as a prostitute named Trixie and the busy Amber Heard continuing her welcome streak of appearing in everything I've seen in the past year, this time briefly as herself.

The show isn't perfect, but it's close. The one story thread that didn't work for me involves Hank's agent Charlie and his sadomasochistic relationship with his secretary, Dani (Rachel Miner), or really anything involving the sexually frustrated Charlie and his wife Marcy (Pamela Adlon). Part of that problem is that Hank's such a character that it's difficult caring about anyone or anything that aren't directly related to his issues. While Miner's a good actress, the role doesn't seem to fit her for some reason and the whole situation feels like filler. That the character of Dani looked to be expanding in importance and screen time as the season wrapped worries me slightly moving forward. And yes, that ruffling of papers you hear are the Red Hot Chili Peppers' attorneys gathering the documents necessary for a huge lawsuit. Too bad the band inexplicably didn't register the trademarks "Californication" or "Dani California" and will now probably lose the case. They deserve to for such a boneheaded move.

All the tools are there for this series to get much better in the following seasons, but I fear the possibility it could also get progressively worse, collapsing under the weight of its own difficult premise. It's a good sign though that synopses for upcoming seasons reveal Hank takes up teaching at a university and there are guest appearances from Peter Gallagher, Kathleen Turner and singer Rick Springfield (playing "a version of himself"). As a whole, Showtime presents the strongest line-up of original programming on cable and Californication is emblematic of that, providing one of the breeziest DVD viewings of a show I've had recently, without a single clunker episode in the twelve. It's the kind of show that you can get hooked on for hours thanks to interesting, well-written characters well worth spending your time with.

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