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CALIFORNICATION (Season One)
2007
Created by Tom Kapinos
28 Minutes
Rated TV-MA

The first season of Californication starts on all the right notes. It's light, frothy, well-established, and hilarious. Hank Moody, the main character played with devilishly vulgar charm by David Duchovny, is an archetypal male hero figure: crass, lacking inhibition or social grace, brilliant, and unspeakably irresistable to the fairer sex. Most guys would probably want to hang out with him. Further scrutiny would find him narcissistic, obsessive, and kind of a dick, but going down that road is the wrong call. I had a screenwriting teacher point out that the audience will root for a main character if they're good at what they do, regardless of whether they're a decent human being. You'll root for Hank.

For the first half, the season has simmering undercurrents that are a little distasteful by any measure, but overall remains fairly light and enjoyable. There's a discourse about modern sexuality that's occurring beneath the surface throughout the series which I really enjoy but may turn off some viewers. I'm not talking about the jokes Moody makes about how he "won't go down in history, but [he] will go down on your sister." There's more going on than that: sexual fidelity is still largely the end-all, be-all of the modern heterosexual relationship, but Californication is willing to table that while discussing peoples' kinks, feelings, and sexual exploration. Sex is important both superficially and in a much deeper way in the series.

Unfortunately, if the show's fairly liberal sexual politics threaten to turn you off, the sharply male-oriented perspective of the show will probably sink it entirely. Make no mistake: this is a show written for men, from a male perspective, about men. It takes pot shots at feminism from time to time, which I don't necessarily agree with, but some genuine male fears are involved here and they're what can make the series uncomfortable. I don't want to get too far into it, but suffice to say, though the law often sides with women for the right reasons, there are corner cases that every man fears and these fears aren't totally unrealistic. A man may not be 100% innocent, but getting put on the sex offender registry can be far too harsh a punishment.

As a side note, it does bear asking: why are women always attracted to misogynistic programming? My sister recommended the show to me and I do enjoy it, but I have to wonder why women so often love stuff like this or The Boondock Saints.

I normally trust reviews over at The Onion A.V. Club, but the solid "F" the series received felt off-the-cuff. I don't totally blame the reviewer, because the series ends with its worst episode by a longshot, but it starts pretty strong and has plenty to redeem it right before the writers completely shit the bed. The writers start running into trouble when they push the drama side of the show harder than the comedy. I won't fault someone for trying to do more or being ambitious, but plotlines become shaky and tenuous the more dramatic the series gets. Characters become more erratic in their behavior, more unlikeable, and at a certain point there's only so much the actor can do to sell the material. Duchovny is constantly game, thoroughly understanding Hank inside and out and able to tweak his logic to get the character to work, but the supporting cast are far less fortunate. Natascha McElhone is game and lovable at the beginning, but as the script makes her jump through more and more hoops her character becomes more a slave to the moment and less a real, fleshed out individual. Madeline Zima has an especially hard time with Mia, a character that should have more complexity but is shamefully underserved by the scripts. The gulf between what the material needs and what's actually there for her to work with only increases as the season wears on, and by the end she just doesn't seem like she can bridge the gap. Evan Handler's performance as Hank's best friend and agent Charlie is affable enough, but he essentially operates in only two modes: funny goof and confused goof. The only other actor that seems to keep a decent handle on their character is the young actress Madeleine Martin, who plays Hank's daughter Becca; she's given a healthy amount of material to work with, but makes the best of it even when the script comes up short. She's precocious, but inoffensively so, and she's easy to love.

But, again, the last episode tries to wrap up as many dangling plot threads as possible, but in a bid to be less predictable it merely starts to become random. It begins to feel like a cheat, and the feeling only worsens as the episode progresses. It's a fecal katamari, picking up shit as it rolls around town until it becomes a massive ball of shit, a titanic, cinematic dingleberry clinging fiercely to a series that has otherwise been largely entertaining. I'm looking forward to the second season if for no other reason that maybe the writers were able to clip the bastard out and fix everything they fucked up at the end of the first season.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.