The major misconception that seems to deter people from watching Californication is the idea that its concept hinges on bad-boy novelist Hank Moody’s (the potentially also misinterpreted David Duchovny) sex addiction. Which is, incidentally, a simplistic diagnosis authored by the show’s knee-jerk detractors. Duchovny, of course, didn’t help matters. In the wake of Mr. Tea Leoni’s real-life stint in rehab for carnal excess, countless principally abstaining viewers and critics-cum-haters thought they smelled publicity stunt.
Funny thing is, Californication’s true central character isn’t Hank at all. Nor is it Karen (Natascha McElhone), the love of his life, mother of his child and a fiercely self-destructive figure in her own right. As the first three seasons unfolded, creator/writer and former Dawson’s Creek executive producer Tom Kapinos made it increasingly clear that his mouthy, sexy, filthy, hilarious and surprisingly moving pitch-black comedy rose and set (to use Kapinos’ own parlance) around Becca, Hank and Karen’s brilliant, metal-worshipping teenage daughter.
Hank, Karen, and even their best friends Charlie and Marcy (cable-series regular Evan Handler and the absolutely awesome Pamela Adlon, whose presence should at least intrigue fans of her roles in Louis C.K.’s various projects)—they’re done, toast. Their time to be the next great shining writers, architects, and agents to graduate from Gen-X entitlement has dissolved into desperate narcissism. But it’s not too late for Hank and Karen to save Becca and to stop living by a code of “so wrong its right” just long enough to nurture the one thing they both freely admit has saved their life from all-too-literally boiling down to a series of last-ditch orgasms.
When last we left our gang of La-La land misanthropes, Hank—and Californication itself—were finally confronted with the show’s other running, primary theme: consequences. After confessing to Karen about having slept with her underage almost-stepdaughter (don’t ask, although yes, he was set up), beating down Mia’s slimy manager/boyfriend (Good to see ya, Franklin from True Blood!) and taking his anger out on multiple men in blue, Hank was long last at rock bottom.
Season four picks up 72 hours later (I do have to say that TV’s new trend of inter-season continuity is a favorable one), with Hank having just spent the weekend in jail, and with no family or home that will have him ... with the exception of dutiful Charlie, the Oscar Acosta to Hank’s Hunter Thompson, who greets him with good booze and the bad news of his exile, but not before trying to squirm away with what Duchovny labels “that shifty, cunty look of yours,” a moment imbued with the implausible charm that Duchovny and Handler have nailed together over the last four years.
Fortunately, Charlie can also report that, in the three days since his imprisonment, the Internet went ablaze with revelations that Hank did in fact write Fucking and Punching, the novel blackmailing vixen Mia had stolen from him and claimed as her own. Moreover, he had become (mostly to his dismay) a sort of anti-hero for perverts land-round, and opportunistic film producers all across town wanted to option the scandalous work as his second go at theatrical adaptation (the first, as Hank is frequent to remind us, ended in a nearly career-killing dust-up with his director).
With that, Californication’s latest 12-set of brisk, absurdly watchable half-hours is off about its usual business of joyless fucking, craven industry manipulation, and, at its best, Hank’s constant struggle to abuse himself for past failures without permanently screwing up the daughter he truly does love more than any work of fiction or fantasy lay.
As with previous seasons, there’s a jarring carousel of recurring guest roles and cameos that can make for a disorienting episodic experience. It’s hard not to get sidetracked while mourning the loss of a regular character, such as season two’s Peter Pan-ish songwriter and raging drug addict Lew Ashby, rather than following the ongoing storylines.
I am ecstatic to report that the first four episodes at least are Mia-free. (Was anything more distracting than The Nanny’s youngest daughter riding Duchovny topless? Oh, right, Madeline Zima’s acting.) But the absence of Kathleen Turner, who was scene-stealing manna from the gods during season three spot-duty as Charlie’s middle-aged boss in heat, is a blow to the show's credibility and comic distraction. Forced to tighten up Charlie and Marcy’s relationship, Kapinos struggles to find them things to do outside of their scenes with Hank and Karen, ultimately resorting to a deus ex machina that could be a gigantic waste of Adlon’s talents in particular.
Always-welcome character actor extraordinaire Stephen Tobolowsky turns up in a role that offers a few surprises and restores a bit of Turner’s thespian legitimacy. Carla Gugino has entered the frame as Hank’s lawyer and possible fuck-buddy, despite having ostensibly played the same exact part on Entourage, but just as a cougar-y agent. Details. And in a devilish bit of meta-stunt casting, Rob Lowe takes a break from filming Parks and Recreation episodes and generally perfecting the art of second-careerism to portray a suspiciously Brad Pitt-like movie star named Eddie Nero who wants to play Hank on-screen and fancies himself a gonzo method man. Lowe appears a bit out of his element at first, until the levels of self-parody start to peek through, and it’s quickly evident that no one else could get away with viciously caricaturizing planet Earth’s most envied male celebrity.
Fisher Stevens also proves game for a memorable and central bit part in “Monkey Business,” the season’s fourth and most perpetually moving episode thus far. Along with post-opener “Suicide Solution” (yes, these titles, and many other of the show’s devices, could stand to be a tad more mysterious), “Monkey” represents the show at its best: sharp, hilarious, diplomatically written, and smartly, sensitively grounded in the family dynamic that gives the show genuine heart, most especially when it involves Hank’s efforts to save himself for Becca’s sake—even if it’s hard for her to see that as a profound expression of his love.
It’s difficult to recommend first dipping your toes into these characters’ galaxy for season four without starting from the beginning. But for those who took a similar leap with Californication as they did Mad Men, and were rewarded with something much richer than its initial brashness would suggest, things seem headed toward reassuringly familiar territory. And while this series' destination and journey might not aspire to such high levels of sophistication, this season does feel as if it’s hurtling toward something of consequence, which is more than a certain serial-killing Showtime mega-hit can say for itself of late.
- A big part of getting a handle on this show’s perspective is understanding that its opening credits are darkly satirical compared to what a show about this kind of character would normally look like. Am I looking too deeply into that?
- Alice in Chains, “Check My Brain.” A shockingly inspired choice.”
- Maybe it’s because I’m a life-long New Yorker, but is the Valley really that bad?
- “You mean to tell me you wouldn’t fuck Eddie Nero, one of the greatest actors of his generation? Allegedly.” Ouch.
- Hank’s doctor in the ER, besides grossly miscasting The Rocker’s Josh Gad, was an asshole to the point of being utterly unrealistic, and totally took me out of a crucial opening scene.
- “I’m gonna ask you a question Runkel, and how you answer will determine whether or not I put this cigarette out in your asshole.”
- Have I mentioned how refreshing it is not to have Mia lurking around to meddle with Hank’s life? She’s like Dexter’s Rita, except still alive.
- Adlon got one good zinger: “What? I’m not good enough to get knocked up by God? Some friend you are.”
- “This is like The Virgin Suicides meets the Yule Log.”
- Budd Carr and Nora Felder continue to kill it with their musical choices, and their selections give us more information on Hank than we’d otherwise know. They’re also really in simpatico with how Kapinos writes Becca’s love for metal into the show.
- Speaking of that, solid touches having a Disfear flyer on Becca’s wall and her band cover the Misfits’ “Last Caress” as Marcy races up the stairs to take a pregnancy test.
- “Way to go dad. Now I have to listen to her cry all night again.” Ouch.
- Not sure how I feel about some of the “gotta hit rock bottom to find inspiration” symbolism floating around, but I’ll withhold judgment till further episodes.