Showtime has effectively carved out a comfortable niche for itself with a series of shows that exist around deeply flawed individuals such as Dexter, Weeds, and now Californication. The trick to making these series compelling is to have the characters fleshed out enough that the viewer is invested in what happens to them, or at least in what happens in general. While Dexter has offered a great deal of insight into the childhood of its protagonist and Weeds has been able to create a setting perfectly suited to its main character, Californication lacks much of what makes the other two series so undeniably watchable.
The boys choir of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a fitting opening theme for Californication and its lead character, Hank Moody (David Duchovny), and it sets the tone for the series. Moody is a boozy, womanizing, self-described “one hit wonder” writer. He wrote a book titled “Why God Hates Us” that was made into a popular romantic comedy, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and his resentment and anger toward the film’s director coupled with his disenchantment with Los Angeles make for a protagonist who is not only narcissistic, but equally self-loathing.
While Moody plays the displaced New Yorker who hates Los Angeles, he thrives in its clichés of superficiality and shallowness. There is a ridiculous stream of beautiful younger woman who, when not throwing themselves at Moody, offer up their bodies for his scrutiny (on two separate occasions, two women ask for Moody’s critique on their physical attributes). In fact, the first episode sets the stage for Moody’s errors in judgment when it comes to sexual entanglements that create major consequences in this first season.
Moody may not be the most likable guy, but there is a certain charm to the character that adds a bit more depth. His appeal is most frequently highlighted when his self-destructive tendencies are still grounded in some way, most often in his relationship with his family. Moody is redeemed by the relationships he has with his young teenage daughter, Becca (Madeleine Martin), and his ex, Karen (Natascha McElhone). Karen in particular is so frequently charmed by Hank that oftentimes the viewer can’t help but be charmed along with her.
Moody’s relationship with Becca is one that offers a glimpse of the loving and mostly responsible father he still is even while his own life is off track. Becca is a wise-beyond-her-years teenager with whom Moody is more honest than he usually is, as well as more sympathetic.
Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler), Moody’s agent and best friend also offers him a chance to show more dimension, although Charlie also proves to be flawed in some of the same ways. As he becomes entangled in his own questionable behavior, he offers Moody camaraderie and validation, but he also shines a spotlight on Moody’s own problematic life choices.
Part of the problem that Moody’s poor choices create is that the viewer is implicitly meant to understand or try to understand them. When one indiscretion involves a Lolitaesque character, it further emphasizes the problematic portrayals of gender roles and sexuality frequently taken lightly or played for laughs throughout the series. Clearly Moody must deal with the fallout from his choices, but the dilemma lies in just how much those around him must also suffer the consequences, particularly as they are almost all women and their sexuality is unmistakably a factor.
Californication is an imperfect show and much like its protagonist it has the potential to be better than it is. While the cast is uniformly good and the series is often very funny, there is not enough to fully draw in the viewer. Episode after episode seems to reinforce Moody’s womanizing and self-destruction, and his constantly inappropriate behavior towards his ex, usually in front of Becca and Karen’s fiancé, Bill, creates a repetitive and heavy-handed portrayal.
The bonus features are disappointing to say the least, in that they are limited to biographies of the main cast, and what amounts to a commercial for a vacation package sweepstakes. There is also the option to view the DVD on a computer and stream the first two episodes of the second seasons of fellow Showtime shows, Dexter and The Tudors, as well as three episodes of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit online. Playing the DVD on a computer also allows the viewer to stream and purchase the soundtrack with bonus tracks.