Friday, May 6, 2011

TV on DVD: Californication (The Complete Third Season)

Starring: David Duchovny, Natascha McElhone, Pamela Adlon, Madeleine Martin, Evan Handler, Peter Gallagher, Eva Amurri, Embeth Davidtz, Diane Farr, Kathleen Turner, Rick Springfield
Creator: Tom Kapinos
Original Airdate: 2009

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

"The idea came out of my own misery of working on Dawson's Creek. I came out here to write screenplays, and I ended up on Dawson's Creek, which was very lucrative and fun, but it was not what I wanted to do. The experience was miserable."
 -Creator Tom Kapinos

You learn something new everyday. As big a Dawson's Creek fan as I am (no joke, it's true) I still had no idea the same person responsible for running that show (into the ground some would say) in its final two seasons wrote and created Californication. And how would I? Could two shows possibly differ more? Contrary to popular opinion, I don't think he ran that series into the ground and would rank the final two seasons he presided over as its strongest, breathing new life into a stale show before it signed off for good. You can only imagine how handcuffed the mind behind a show as smart edgy as Californication must have felt overseeing a teen drama on the WB, but it's still kind of funny the experience traumatized him enough to create this. And it's a good thing it did.

Now in its third season, the misadventures of sex addicted writer and mid-life crisis sufferer Hank Moody not only shows no signs of losing steam, the character's emerging as almost a tragic figure of sorts. The series has always been unusually skilled at mixing comedy and drama, but most of this season feels exclusively like pure screwball comedy. It isn't until the final episode you realize that there was a concrete plan in place the entire time and just how well written the entire story arc was. The finale also marks the first time during the course of the series where star David Duchovny, seemingly so effortlessly laid back and cool in this role, is called upon to play angry and miserable. It's strange to think that for a long period of time in the '90's that's all we thought he could do, or at least all he was allowed to. Now as he just keeps getting better and revealing more with each passing episode, he's surprisingly evolving into one of the best dramatic actors on television.

After last season's enormously successful guest turn from Callum Keith Rennie as wild music producer Lew Ashby, Kapinos had probably hoped to recreate that magic by stacking Season 3 with as many guest stars as possible, to the point that they basically take over the show, even pushing some of the series regulars to the side. It's a big risk, but one that works because of who they are and the thought that went into how they'd be incorporated into the narrative. The on again off again on again off again relationship between Hank and Karen (Natascha McElhone), his womanizing, and inability to be the father and husband he needs to be is still at the crux of the series, only this time the game has changed slightly. With Karen off to New York at the end of last season, McElhone appears only sporadically throughout the season until the final few episodes while previous regular Madeline Zima returns in only a single (but very memorable) guest starring appearance as the conniving Mia. It's a credit to how exciting the season is that the absence of two main characters is barely noticeable and when they finally do return, the impact they make is huge.

Hank already has enough going on between increasingly troubled teenage daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin) rebelling like she never has before and his new gig as a college professor, which not surprisingly supplies the season's most entertaining moments. Just the idea of Hank being let loose on a college campus as a writing professor is filled with all sorts of crazy potential and this doesn't disappoint since he doesn't just stop at sleeping with the Dean's wife (Embeth Davidtz), but also goes after his T.A. (Diane Farr) and one of his students, (Eva Amurri), who happens to be a stripper. His attempts to juggle these women and keep his job provides the narrative for most of the season, but this might be one of the few occasions where the women he beds on the show are presented as being smarter and more interesting than he is, as opposed to the latest notches in his belt they've been treated as in the previous two seasons. That, the superb performances from those three actresses (especially Amurri) and Hank being dropped in a fresh setting make most of these episodes soar, with impending return of Karen always on the horizon, along with the chance she could take Becca back with her to New York if he doesn't get his act together. Of course, if he does, there's still that possibility he could be transplanted with them, which would be bad news for a series so dependent on its west coast setting and atmosphere. Plus, Newyorkifornication just doesn't have the same ring to it.

The series' weak link is still the character of Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler) who's seemingly never-ending divorce saga with wife Marcy (Pamela Adlon) continues to play out in a somewhat tiresome fashion. But at least this time Charlie's finally given a storyline that comes closest to working when he gets another shot as an agent working for the brash, hilariously vulgar, sex obsessed Sue Collini (Kathleen Turner) and overseeing the potential comeback of 80's music superstar Rick Springfield (playing a version of "himself"). Turner's performance is practically surreal in terms of the explicit dialogue that comes out her mouth and how she so casually delivers it. It's rare you can say something's done entirely for shock value and mean it as a compliment, but Turner's an exception, excelling at her best role in years. Rounding out the guest-filled season is Peter Gallagher, great as the clueless Dean Stacey Koons, Pineapple Express' Kevin Corrigan as Hank's loserish childhood friend, Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick as a troubled student. and in a brilliantly bizarre crossover cameo, Ken Marino briefly reprises his role as Professor David Wilder from Dawson's Creek nearly a decade later. Given there's probably very little audience overlap between the two shows, I'm likely one of the few who noticed the shout-out to the Creek, but it isn't exactly everyday you get to see a familiar character from a long defunct show resurrected years later in a totally different series. Yet with all that works, this still isn't quite a perfect season, making me wonder what it'll take to get there. I'd say getting rid of Charlie Runkle would help but so much time and effort has been invested into the character it would almost be a disastrous decision to write him out now (plus I have this awful feeling I'd actually miss the dope, which is a credit to Handler's performance if nothing else).

So much happens during this season it almost feels like the action hits its peak before the finale, but that finale ends up being one of the strongest episodes of the series, with Hank's plight connecting in a way it hasn't before in the final few minutes, bringing new meaning to the term "hitting rock bottom." An issue we thought had died resurfaces for him at the worst time, threatening to rip his family apart for good. Everything always comes back to Hank and Karen and what's so interesting about the series is that we know already how it has to end: With Hank's redemption. Yet that still doesn't diminish any of the anticipation in getting there and what it'll mean when that eventually occurs.

With the quality of writing on even the best shows fluctuating wildly from season to season, this series has accomplished something rare. Its Showtime stablemate Dexter will always get more accolades and attention simply because when it hits its mark, it hits it hard, and the bar is raised so high. That happens less frequently with Californication and when it really delivers it falls shorter than that show, but over the long haul consistency has been its trademark, delivering three seasons in a row of nearly equal quality, each providing a different viewing experience. Someone could just dive into this season cold having never seen the show before and still enjoy it. That says a lot. The possibility that it hasn't hit its peak yet as it enters its fourth season and there are more avenues to explore with these characters is reason enough to keep tuning in.     


Anthony R Rosas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony R Rosas said...

I think it's peaking now. Series 5 is brilliant so far. I haven't laughed so hard...but contrast that to end of the dinner scene where Hank takes a kick in the gut delivered brilliantly in episode 5, by Natalie Zea. Great season shaping up.

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