Californication: An Exceptional and Important Television Show

November 13, 2007

Earlier this year, when I read about the premise for Showtime’s new series, Californication, I got a sinking feeling. Girlfriend of ibiteyoureyes (who informed me yesterday that she’d rather I start referring to her again as shepicksyournose, because “it’s funny and I do pick your nose”) watched the pilot episode of this “show about a writer,” starring David Duchovny in his first TV role since The X-Files, and liked it pretty well. But she warned me about watching it for myself.

“I feel like you might get kind of sensitive about how they treat the character,” she said. “He’s definitely a writer, all the stereotypes are there, but I don’t know if you’ll like it…then again…why else would they be stereotypes?” A teasing description of how many of the stereotypes fit onto my back probably followed, after which I probably bit her chest-eyes.

Anyway! After heeding her warning for a while, I caved. There’s just not much else out there worth watching, and Showtime and HBO have each proven themselves as surer bets in the search for eye-safe television. And, lo and behold, shepicksyournose was right. I did get kind of sensitive. In all the right ways.

Off they rattle:

  1. “Worst” writer stereotypes are very well handled. The most obvious of these are alcoholism, self-loathing/self-destructiveness, narcissism, and an alternating need for either independence or complete doting attention. The near-perfect way in which each of these traits (in addition to a few others that I’m saving to discuss in a moment) are handled assuaged my fears almost immediately. And a lot of this has to do with…
  2. Duchovny. Any mention of his fantastic performance of his character, Hank Moody, must discuss the quality of the writing behind that character as well. Moody sometimes drops lines so finely colored with intelligent sarcasm that it’s hard not to empathize with all the other characters in the show who can’t stand his crap but are consistently drawn to him anyway. Many of these lines are also colored with ‘filth,’ but Duchovny’s delivery and body language are so perfectly on-the-money most of the time that you (again, like most of the supporting cast) can’t help but just laugh and cringe. I never watched The X-Files. I watched the-movie-of-the-show and liked it, and for some reason I always just liked Duchovny, but his acting in this show has made me a serious fan of the man’s work.
  3. The more subtle writer stereotypes are expertly handled. I should point out, before I comment any further on the authenticity of the show, that I am not a Hank Moody kind of writer. I’m like a Hank Moody kind of writer, just more cowardly and less bold and a little more stained by tradition. But it’s a testament to the show: even when I can’t relate directly to what’s happening to and/or with Hank…I can relate to what’s happening to and/or with Hank as a person and as a writer. An example: his relationship with Karen (extremely well-played by Natascha McElhone). The love that these two characters have for one another is nothing short of beautiful. More important is why it’s so beautiful, namely: because it’s so full and frail and honest as to become nearly unbearable for the characters themselves. Everything in the show drifts towards and around Hank and Karen. And none of it seems forced. From one episode to the next, you struggle with them, you empathize with them, and eventually you just hope and hope that everything is going to work out as well as it can by the end. Which brings me to my next point.
  4. Idealism. Enter the part of the show that did me in. Any regular, astute observer of the eyebiting ways that I exhibit on this site (five of you??) probably knows it just as well as I do: all of my ‘anger’ comes from a place different from simple rage or frustration. It comes from an inability to let go, even in some small way, to certain overarching ideals. Idealism, at the end of the day, is what makes Hank Moody, and Californication, special.

Sure, it’s still a television show. Melodrama is at play, characters are sometimes brought in (and then kicked out) just for the sake of it, and whenever the plot is in danger of stalling, convenient coincidences abound. But I just watched the entire first season of Californication, and I’m telling you: not only is it a great, entertaining show…it’s an honest and responsible show.

Just to be clear: ‘honest’ and ‘responsible’ may not be the first words that come to mind when you watch the pilot episode, or even the first few episodes. Lucky for you, there’s one more great big thing that the show does right. And it does this thing in the name of honesty, and of responsibility.

Californication and Hank Moody alike, despite all tarnish and flaws, are at bottom proud and sure. Like any good writer should be if he/she plans to make an impact.

This relates to something that I’ve been harping about, to anyone who will listen, for a few months now. Too many of today’s popular “television shows with an edge” place the illustration of that edge before any/all possible explorations of why it’s there in the first place. The result of this is worse than the behavior itself. I’m thinking particularly of shows like Rescue Me (a show that I enjoyed for its first three seasons but looks to have run its course). Oftentimes, after I’ve watched such shows, that same sinking feeling comes into my gut. I can’t help but wonder about what their success may mean in the grand scheme of things. It seems to me that more and more dramas (or comedic dramas) are succeeding by subverting ‘story’ and ‘meaning’ and over-emphasizing ‘character.’ By that I mean that more and more focus is being placed on how messed up people are, or can get, or can be to each other. This leaves less a lot less time for such characters to try to learn or fix things. Not only does the show suffer, future audiences suffer…from a lack of hope.

Do I expect every show on television, every movie and book, to dedicate itself to bettering the world? Nah. But I worry about how many people seem to take the entertainment experience for granted. Maybe I should repeat what I asked my girlfriend when we were about finished talking about this the other night…

What if we were teenagers, watching this by ourselves at home because our parents have the money to pay for a premium cable package? What if, during those formative years, our primary, or most regular, sources of entertainment were shows about whole groups of adults thrashing through life, acting largely like children, until everything either completely works out or completely doesn’t, by some miracle of television?

To be honest, I said that after watching the first five episodes of Californication. Because I was worried about it becoming just another edgy show showing all of the struggle but none of the source-conflict. Thankfully, I was wrong.

That’s why I’m so strongly advocating this show. I am beyond glad to have been wrong. By the time I had finished watching the first season of Californication, my sinking gut was better than fine. I felt more than a little vivified. And if television is going to continue to be such an inextricable part of both our lives and the lives of future generations, we’re going to need this to happen to more people, more often.

3 Responses to “Californication: An Exceptional and Important Television Show”

  1. amanda Says:

    hey michael,
    thanks for the note about my blog and yes I understand what you mean exactly. I’ve always referred to it ‘as the rule of hope’ people need to feel like true love, goodness and making the right choice are possible but really what it comes down to is honesty. This show is honest and that’s why we’re so compelled by it. Guys who sleep around can be ‘nice guys’ and tramps can have a heart of gold. isn’t life wonderfully complicated.

  2. daizan Says:

    Watch Californication Episodes Online for free 🙂

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