"Californication's" atrocious masculine fantasy

The Showtime series returns for its fourth season -- but its despicable message has outlived its welcome

Published January 10, 2011 4:30PM (EST)

Addison Timlin as Sasha Bingham, David Duchovny as Hank, and Madeline Zima as Mia in Californication (Season 4, Episode 5) - Photo: Jordin Althaus/Showtime - Photo ID: californication_405_0265 (Jordin Althaus/©showtime)
Addison Timlin as Sasha Bingham, David Duchovny as Hank, and Madeline Zima as Mia in Californication (Season 4, Episode 5) - Photo: Jordin Althaus/Showtime - Photo ID: californication_405_0265 (Jordin Althaus/©showtime)

I'll dispense with "Californication" quickly because writing about it at length would make me sick. When I wrote about this show's premiere back in 2007, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Duchovny, an original and occasionally brilliant comic actor, had been mostly AWOL from TV following the cancellation of "The X-Files." Between his innate likability, his fondness for grubby '70s films, and persistent off-screen rumors that he was real-life sex addict (he denied it to Playgirl in 1997 , but checked into rehab in 2008) I thought there was at least a chance that he and series creator Tom Kapinos would produce a comedy worth watching -- maybe one worth thinking about.

No such luck. Within a few episodes it became painfully clear that "Californication" was a maudlin, self-important update of HBO's "Dream On," only with faux-cinematic music video interludes, and minus the frenzied slapstick. (Duchovny's carnal misadventures were rudely funny, and he got his ass kicked quite a bit, which always put a smile on my face, but let's face it: Brian Benben is the Buster Keaton of screwing, and even at his wildest, Duchovny can't measure up.) I didn't watch the second or third seasons; when I sat down to watch the first few episodes of Season 4 last week, the completist in me wondered if I should catch up on the rest.

Sorry. Not happening. I can't face it -- and not just because Sunday's kickoff, which built on the relationship established in the series pilot, convinced me that I didn't miss much while I was away. The season's opening moments found Hank -- still an alcoholic/druggie/womanizing/lying sleazebag -- being released from jail after assaulting a filmmaker. This season's main plot builds on a relationship established in Season 1: Hank's affair with 16-year-old hottie Mia Lewis (Madeline Zima), who enjoys punching men in the face during sex, and who subsequently stole Hank's novel about their affair and published it under her own name as a memoir titled "Fucking and Punching." New characters include Hank's cutely named attorney Abby Rhoads (Carla Gugino), who's fated to end up in bed with him because, dude, she's hot, and Hank always bags the hot ones; a producer (Stephen Tobolowsky) who wants to turn Mia's book into a film and have Hank write the script; and luscious, busty starlet Sasha Bingham (Addison Timlin), who will play Mia. The, um, climax of Sunday's episode found Sasha doing background research by mounting Hank, showing off her downy rump and oft-marveled-over great tits -- her description, quite accurate -- and then slugging him in the face repeatedly.

Next week Rob Lowe -- no stranger to bedroom misadventure -- shows up playing Eddie Nero, an Oscar-winning (and hypermasculine) movie star angling to play Hank in the movie. Lowe is costumed like Brad Pitt in his Caucasian rasta-man phase, and carries himself like Tyler Durden in "Fight Club"; he's a caricature of the swaggering pig-prince. He might be hilarious if he were played by a charming actor who didn't exude insecurity, defensiveness and hostility at every moment. (And Nero's "wild" dialogue is just dumb and revolting. "Excuse me," he tells Hank, ducking out of an initial meeting at a hip lounge, "I see a girl that I defecated on in Palm Springs.") The episode's default mode is heavy on jerk-ish banter, TV-MA screwing, and frat-house style, stick-it-to-the-nerds hazing. (For no reason at all, Eddie terrorizes Hank's friend and manager, Evan Handler's Charlie Runkle, by squeezing his nuts while taunting him -- and Hank doesn't intervene, but just looks on in mild amusement, because hey, he's The Man, and Nero is also The Man, and Runkle is just a pasty little geek.)

But then, as always, "Californication" shifts into its secondary mode, pickled regret, and shows Hank desperately trying to salvage what's left of his relationship with his ex-wife Karen (Natasha McElhone) and teenage daughter, Becca (Madeline Martin -- a superb guitarist whose skill is showcased in scenes where she plays for pocket money on the Venice Beach boardwalk). The best scenes in the five Season 4 episodes I've watched revolve around Hank and Becca, a smart, driven young woman who's so horrified by her father's trashy and stupid behavior (and subsequent self-justifications) that her lines have a constipated quality -- as if the inner conflict between loving the father and hating the man is making her synapses misfire.

But those scenes too often feel like cynical cover for the boozing and screwing and showing-off of hard-bodied chicks (and hard-bodied Duchovny, who looks as if he spends four hours a day at the gym -- two of them devoted to the maintenance of his abs and rear). The basic problem with the entire series -- both the "Yay, penises!" comedy/carnality and the more introspective, dramatic scenes involving Hank's family -- is that there's no measurable evolution over time, or for that matter, much depth or nuance. I missed two seasons of this show but was able to jump right into it again as if it were a "Law and Order" spinoff. That would be OK if it weren't so painfully obvious that "Californication" aspires to be more than just a passively entertaining time-waster (or even an actively entertaining one like "Dream On"). Too much of the show valorizes its protagonist's behavior, and bends the story to hype the idea that Hank is the funniest, sexiest, most irresistible thing on two legs. He can drink more than anybody else on the planet, yet (to my knowledge) he's never failed to get it up and satisfy his various conquests -- and when he calls Runkle unmanly and casually describes things he doesn't like as "faggy," we're supposed to chortle in agreement.  (At its worst, the series radiates the self-contempt that some macho heterosexual male actors exude when they fear, deep down, that they've dedicated their lives to an inherently unmanly profession. "Rescue Me" had a touch of that -- Denis Leary bagging every babe and making every save, and strutting around the firehouse in leather jackets and sunglasses that cost more than real firefighters' cars.)

The series might be horrifyingly funny and ring painfully true if it it didn't constantly beg us to see Hank as a witty, lovable libertine who means well. At its worst, "Californication" comes on like a series about an addict created by addicts, but without the harsh clarity that sober hindsight provides. Its mission is to make a case for Hank being a swell guy underneath all the stupidity and hustling and self-destruction -- a tenderhearted genius who's worth the trouble.  If you watch this series every week, please stop. You're just enabling it.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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Californication Television