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Californication: The Fifth Season

(US DVD: 18 Dec 2012)

The fifth season of Showtime’s sex-packed Californication may be my last. Not thee last. Season six starts January 13th. No, it’s just likely to be my last season of a once-beloved half-hour with Hank.


It seemed after season four that writer/creator Tom Kapinos was a little lost as to where Hank’s story should go. After season five, I’m certain he has no idea.


The first season of Californication, in which cult novelist Hank Moody moves from the dark, cold, angry streets of his treasured New York to the bright, sunny, manipulative beaches of Los Angeles in pursuit of his lost loves—ex-lover Karen and daughter Becca—was the perfect arc of television. It opened with Hank’s desire to win back what was important to him, explored the personal vices keeping him from obtaining them, and finished in grand fashion with the conquering of those vices and his escape from the devilish city with beaus in tow.


Three years later, Hank’s back in L.A., again half-heartedly pursuing Karen, and once more trying to get back to the East Coast. Now, I’m no stranger to or adversary of drawn out television romances. I’m a veteran of the Friends years as well as the Jim and Pam saga. I still love them both. However, I can’t put Hank and Karen up with Ross and Rachel after all of the (too) dark days and (too) vague reasons keeping them apart. It didn’t help that some storylines have made you actively root against them getting together because they’re so wrong for each other (aka, the entirety of season four).


So what adventures does Hank find himself on in season five? Well, I’m not sure you can call them adventures. They’re more like unimaginative daydreams with an extra dose of nudity. The closest the season comes to an adventure is the commandeering of a cop car by Hank, the ever-befuddled Charlie, and the new story stimulus Samurai Apocalypse (RZA).


Samurai, or Sam as he’s commonly referred to, is a successful rapper looking to become a movie star who decides Hank is the perfect man to write his Beverly Hills Cop rip-off, Santa Monica Cop—which reminds me. I know Hollywood isn’t the most original place in the world and that’s worth spoofing, but really? Santa Monica Cop? Even studio execs know better.


Of course, Samurai is in love with a girl who Hank met in the bathroom stall of a plane, and Hank’s too scared to admit he fooled around with Sam’s “bitch”. Since Hank doesn’t care about Hollywood, he’s not scared of being fired. And since Samurai is a black rapper, he’s has to threaten people with guns every other scene. So Hank’s scared of death, a perfectly justifiable fear, but one that never drives him to any kind of self-awareness or truth, making the whole angle a little too cliché.


RZA does an okay job of portraying both sides of Samurai’s bipolar personality—cool and crazy—but it’s a dull, predictable roll without much of a payoff and certainly not worth being the focus of an entire season. Kapinos clearly needed something, though, because Hank is less complex than ever.


The lothario seems to have his priorities in line (finally), and is more the victim of bad fortune than ever—which is saying something because most of his problems aren’t really his fault. They’re just related to him in a way even he doesn’t like, and that’s apparently good enough reason to blame him completely. At least, for Karen.


The real problem with Californication is it’s now making the case that no matter how much you change for the better, the past will always come back to ruin you. Perhaps the whole show will wind up being a cautionary tale for sex addicts, junkies, or regular ol’ cheaters (it’s especially hard to tell where it’s going when the two-disc set’s only special features are episodes of other Showtime shows). Californication certainly likes to act high-minded about fornication while still celebrating all of its disgusting lows. But how can we be invested in Hank’s betterment when we know he’s doomed in the end, no matter how much good he does in the present?


Never is this more apparent than in season five’s finalé, when Hank’s continued growth peaks, luck breaks in his favor, and everything appears to be on the right track. Yet, the viewer knows it won’t end this way. It’s too tidy. Too kind. Too appropriate. So instead we sit back and wait for whatever surprise they’ve got in store for the last few minutes.


What Kapinos and Duchovny (who’s also an executive producer) haven’t realized yet is that we don’t need the drama. Californication started off as a dark romantic comedy, leaning heavily on its hard rock mentality and soft core sex to earn street cred with male viewers. The darkness is all but gone, though. Hank’s journey to emotional stability is over. He’s there. Yet Kapinos and Co. can’t stop plopping him down in no-win scenarios just to see him come out the other side the same man he was before—after all, no one really wants him to change. Not that much, anyway.


Season two was a little darker, a little more muddled than one, but they held true to the promise made in the first chapter’s final moments and kept Hank and Karen together. Season three was fun until they blew everything up in the last episode with the long-put-off reveal that Hank slept with an underage girl (unknowingly). Season four was a complete dip into darkness as Hank went through his statutory rape trial before finally leaving L.A. when Karen moved on without him—again, in the last episode.


All these twists ruin the fun. Hank is a dynamic, challenging character who will create enough problems on his own. There’s simply no need to keep him from his one true love. Watching Hank take on these unwanted jobs—blogger, college professor, screenwriter, and possibly a playwright in season six—would be conflict enough. Let him have Karen. Let him be happy at home, and thus let the viewers be happy, too.


Season five was thankfully lighter fare, but the writers again felt compelled to throw in an unexpected and unwelcome curve right before the buzzer sounded. Some may still be waiting in anticipation, but I’m sick of waiting in dread. The tagline of season four was “Free Hank Moody”, a joke campaign to get the man out of jail during the year of his trial. Little did anyone know he’s actually been imprisoned much longer than that.

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Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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Madeleine Martin reflects on a season of Californication that saw her character, Becca Moody, play an essential part in Hank’s slow transition to adulthood.
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An imperfect show that, much like its protagonist, has the potential to be better than it is.
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