The recent announcement that David Duchovny entered rehab for sexual addiction sounds almost like a promotional ploy for Californication. To be sure, curious viewers looking for an example of life imitating art will find plenty of bawdy scenarios when the second season opens on 28 September. But discerning viewers will see that the show offers more than sex shows and jokes.
Consider Duchovny’s Hank Moody a hero for the noughties. A successful Los Angeles-based novelist, his life seems a string of outrageous sexual exploits perfectly tailored for a tell-all memoir. As he acts out a perennial struggle between the impulse to stray and the desire to be faithful to the woman he loves, Hank offers both an escapist sexual fantasy and a nightmare. Throughout last season, he suffered all manner of regret for ruining his long-term relationship with Karen (Natascha McElhone), indulging in serial bad behavior in order to blot out his pain.
At the end of Season One, Hank had succeeded in winning Karen back. Now he’s trying to persuade her she made the right choice by keeping to a straight and narrow path of adult responsibility and monogamy. Alas, his efforts are thwarted in the season premiere, when Hank goes down on the wrong woman and assaults a police officer; by the third episode, he’s been comped a freebie by a call girl, spent time in jail, and landed a six-figure book deal. And oh yes, he’s also started brawls with a rock band and his new employer. Either Hank is paying the karmic price for his earlier actions or he’s deeply unlucky — with bad luck defined as his frequent opportunities for casual sex.
Throughout these adventures, our hero is paired with the somewhat kindred spirit Lew Ashby (Callum Keith Rennie, excellent as always), a successful music producer who hires Hank to write his biography. Because his novel was stolen last season, Hank has little choice but to agree, and his research provides repeated opportunities for exploiting the fabled wild life of L.A. ‘s music industry. Ashby represents Hank’s id gone wild, and so reintroduces last season’s conflicts, exacerbated.
With Hank working for Ashby, Hank and his best friend Charlie (Evan Handler) are spending less time together. Charlie is also trying to be responsible, doing the right thing at work and by his wife, Marcy (Pamela Adlon). The men’s separation sends Charlie out on his own voyage of self-discovery, rather than again positioning him as foil to Hank. That this journey takes Charlie into the back of the “Slam Van” and provides him with a new career as agent to struggling porn actress Daisy (Carla Gallo) underlines the show’s winning thematic formula of taking loveable scoundrels and putting them in increasingly outrageous sexual situations.
With this excessive focus on sex, the show achieves something like an “authentic” male perspective, albeit preposterously over the top. Like Sex and the City, Californication is fantastical, featuring lifestyles divorced from most people’s reality, where the lead characters functioning as idealized versions of the hetero-self. But in Californication, these ideals are not premised on the idea that sex is a sensational metaphor for emotional connection. Here, the very act serves as a window into Hank’s psyche. In Season One, it was also bundled with Hank’s self-destructive urges, but now it illustrates his progress into uncharted emotional territory. That everyone around him is having plenty of it and he’s not (not least because the new season’s first episode starts with Hank having a vasectomy, a symbol of his newfound commitment to Karen) places Hank in a kind of purgatory.
To this point, Season Two exaggerates the role of Los Angeles, increasing its use as a visual motif. Repeated interstitials of L.A., shot to achieve a grainy quality, intercut between different scenes, are mildly distracting. The city becomes further annoying when the handheld technique is applied to cutaways and close-ups of the characters in the middle of scenes. Drawing parallels between the city’s decadence and that of its inhabitants is a fairly obvious point to make, so using it for more than just establishing shots is overkill, specifically pulling the viewer out of emotional moments. It’s a small quibble, though, and thankfully, the only complaint about this new season so far.