Sunday, May 16, 2010

TV on DVD: Californication (The Complete Second Season)

Creator: Tom Kapinos
Starring: David Duchovny, Natascha McElhone, Madeleine Martin, Evan Handler, Pamela Adlon, Madeline Zima, Callum Keith Rennie

Original Airdate: 2008

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Second seasons are tough. Just run down the list of television's most acclaimed shows and try naming any that had a sophomore season better than its first. The freshness of the premiere season can't be equaled and there's almost always a drop-off in quality, often very steep. The more second seasons of enjoyable shows I view the more appreciation I have for the writers burdened with such a thankless task, as I picture their weekdays spent locked in a conference room screaming at each another and banging their heads against the wall. Californication's second season isn't necessarily an exception to this rule, but watching it gave me a greater understanding why writing a worthy follow-up to a creatively strong debut season can be so difficult. There's the pressure to stay true to all the characters' established traits, yet at the same time have them progress so you're merely not just repeating the same situations. This becomes even more challenging with a protagonist like Hank Moody, whose very likability rests on the fact that he can never grow or mature as a character. If he does, the essence of what makes this show so compulsively watchable is lost.

Cleverly (but not without a shaky, unfocused start), showrunner Tom Kapinos found a way out of this dilemma by lessening the focus on Hank and expanding the setting he inhabits by introducing a fresh character. It allows him to move in a new direction without us feeling like he has. So while the second season of Californication isn't as strong as the first, I enjoyed it more, and did so because of one performance. And David Duchovny isn't the actor who gives it. It's the only thing really worth talking about in the entire season, not because there isn't anything else worthwhile, but because this relatively unknown actor blows everything and everyone he comes in contact with right off the screen with the one of the best recent guest starring performances on a series. Despite having just a brief stay, the show won't be the same again without the character.

The very early start of this season is rough and slow going, calling attention to a familiar long-running problem that's faced any show with a pair of romantic leads: Viewers are rooting for them to get together even though it isn't in the best interest of the series. When season 1 ended we were teased with the reconciliation of self-absorbed, womanizing writer Hank (Duchovny) and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Karen (Natasha McElhone) after she leaves her new husband at the altar to run away with him and their teenage daughter Becca (Madeliene Martin). The opening episodes of this season follow through on that tease, perhaps to give us a fleeting glimpse of how bad the show would be if they did reconcile. It's comparable to your favorite losing team finally winning the Super Bowl or World Series. At first you're elated, but then what? That next season can never be as fun because the thrill of the chase is gone, as is the pride you felt sticking by a terrible team no one thought stood a chance. Being the defending champions just isn't as exciting.

Hank is that losing team who can never deliver when he needs to and him reuniting with Karen essentially defeats the purpose of the entire show. There's nothing to root for. Thankfully, it didn't last and the writers instead cleverly used it as a creative launching pad for Hank to screw up royally again, reverting to his mischievous, hedonistic ways. But this season he meets the one person in California living harder than he is. With either drugs, groupies or hookers in every other room of his palatial Laurel Canyon mansion, famous Gatsby-like music producer Lew Ashby (Callum Keith Rennie) befriends Hank at a party and chooses him as the writer of his biography. Rennie's performance is the best kind of great one because it sneaks up on you. At first it doesn't seem like it's going to be much or the character will even be that important but slowly you realize that this entire show is his and everyone else is just tagging along for the wild ride. It's with his arrival and the unusual bond he develops with Hank where this season starts to turn the corner.

While a party animal like Hank, Ashby is also secretly drowning in a sea of regret over "the one that got away," a mystery woman who provides the hidden key to Ashby's life and Hank's research into the biography. Her name is Janie and she's played by Twin Peaks vet Madchen Amick who in no small feat manages to meet expectations of the one woman capable of weakening him. Even when indulging in his worst impulses, like slyly attempting to steal Karen from him, he remains the best friend Hank could possibly have and his perfect counterpart. But what's most remarkable about Rennie's performance is how much much it'll remind viewers of friends they've had or people they've met. So much so the character seems like he almost has to be based on a real person, or maybe a combination of different people. Ashby is that kind of guy who just keeps screwing up over and over again, but is so cool and likable that you just go along with it. You know you should tell them to change their ways, but how can you (at least with a straight face) when they're this much fun? He rips through the characters' lives like a tornado and goes out the only way he can--in a self-destructive blaze of glory. And credit the writers for being smart enough to realize the most interesting people we encounter in life tend to be the ones who rarely stick around for long.

Rennie, a Canadian actor with credits including The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, 24 and FlashForward is supposedly good friends with Duchovny so that helped lead to him to being cast. As executive producer you'd figure Duchovny had to know this guy would completely steal the season, but unselfishly realized it was in the show's best interest for him to do just that. It's a writing achievement but Rennie deserves accolades for bringing what's on the page to life in a way another performer wouldn't have been able to. The character also sheds a new light on Hank, making him confront his mistakes in a way that couldn't have been achieved if this season's focus was just on him again. In retrospect, Showtime probably missed a golden opportunity to spin Ashby off into his own series since I could easily envision a show focusing on his previous exploits (maybe an adaptation of that "biography?") being even more entertaining than this one.

There were other notable guest starring turns this season like the return of Judy Greer (with a slightly expanded role this time around) as prostitute Trixie, Meredith Monroe as an annoying Rachael Ray-like celebrity chef, Justine Bateman as Becca's teacher and Hank conquest, Sheri Moon Zombie as a nurse and Undeclared's Carla Gallo as a porn actress Hank's bumbling agent Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler) takes on as a client. Unfortunately, Charlie's the weak link of the season and again drags it down a few notches, which is a shame because everything else on the show works so well and Handler always delivers in the sometimes thankless role. There's some nonsense with he and his wife Marcy's (Pamela Adlon) coke addiction and his plunge into the porn industry, some of it tired and little of it as funny as the show seems to think it is. If I had to choose though I'd at least say I enjoyed this Charlie storyline better than the S & M craziness he was involved in with his assistant (Rachel Miner) last season, mainly because Gallo is a more likable actress and Hal Ozsan puts in a good turn as a sleazy filmmaker. All this has its moments but something better has to be done with Charlie so we care about the character outside of his connection to Hank, rather than all the shows most vulgar elements being thrown on him for no reason other than to provide cheap, gross-out laughs.

With a character like Ashby front and center for nearly every episode something had to give somewhere. That something ends up being Mia (Madeline Zima) who's pretty much entirely pushed to the sidelines with the exception of a fling with Ashby that does more to further enhance the legend of "The Great Ashby" than anything else. But that's fine. What the writers never forget is how Hank's actions and his dysfunctional relationship with Karen affects Becca, played by Madeleine Martin in her typically awesome deadpan style. It's really the heart of the entire show and becomes even more important this season when she gets a boyfriend and the suddenly overprotective Hank finds himself in the role of one of "those dads" because if anyone should know what guys are after it's him. He realizes it's not so funny when it's happening to his own daughter.

A season that starts with Hank settling down with Karen and getting a vasectomy had me worried the writers really were going to castrate and wussify the character, but thankfully they were in on the joke. That the most important influence on the series was a music producer is fitting on a show that names episodes after Harry Chapin albums and plays choice tracks from Warren Zevon's catalog. This season feels like a great sophomore album requiring a few listens to fully appreciate but is endlessly listenable. Rennie's performance as Ashby makes it worth returning to and given the choice I'd more quickly revisit this season, flaws and all, than the first one. Second seasons can't be first seasons but they can hope to broaden the scope, allowing the story and characters to move forward in a way that doesn't offend loyal viewers too much. In doing that, the second season of Californication succeeds where many other shows haven't.


JD said...

I love this show.
Excellent review.
Need to go back and watch this season as I missed most of it.

jeremythecritic said...

Just seems to grow on me more and more. Can't wait for the third season to hit DVD.