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"Pilot (Californication)," "Hell-A Woman," "The Whore of Babylon," "Fear and Loathing at the Fundraiser," "LOL," "Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder," "Girls Interrupted," "Filthy Lucre," "The Devil's Threesome," "Turn the Page," "The Last Waltz"
by Ian Pugh "Californication" can only be described as an attempt to replicate Bukowskian swagger: a lot of drinking, fighting, and fucking, with a touch of melancholy as it silently laments that it doesn't know anything else. It's intriguing, but it proves to be a problem because, unlike its alcoholic inspiration, it really doesn't know anything else--especially how to properly express its perspective on all that drinking, fighting, and fucking. Indeed, it's a major problem, considering the show revolves around a novelist, Hank Moody (David Duchovny), who suffered an unwilling relocation from New York to L.A. after his alleged masterpiece of nihilism God Hates Us All was somehow transformed into a romantic comedy entitled A Crazy Little Thing Called Love, starring Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Much to the chagrin of his agent (Evan Handler), Hank hasn't written a word in almost five years--and in-between trying to win over his ex-lover Karen (Natascha McElhone) and their distant daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin), he spends his time patrolling the local bars and jumping into bed with every woman who crosses his path.
The fatal flaw of this premise could be traced back to the fact that while "Californication" never shies away from very frank portrayals of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (and their inevitable consequences), it almost consistently fails to demonstrate how this haze of hedonism would affect the life of a writer. Perhaps it's because we're supposed to see Hank as a cynical underground sensation, and the show's scribes have very little idea how to deal with that--like "Bones" and "Shark" before it, "Californication" betrays considerable difficulty in making a watchable, likeable protagonist out of the author of a book called God Hates Us All, and so they reduce Hank to a vaguely pessimistic, on-demand snark machine. The results land nowhere near Juno in terms of self-congratulatory pap that surrounds itself with a captive audience, but they're both born of the same mentality that confuses quick-wittedness with full-blown egotism. I grew progressively more irritated as each and every one of Hank's off-the-cuff bon mots received an obligatory chuckle from the iciest of spectators.
"Californication" sets up the pins and proceeds to knock 'em down; from the moment some drunken schmuck calls Karen a "cunt" (1.4, "Fear and Loathing at the Fundraiser"), you know he's going to get a taste of Hank's fist, followed shortly by cutting repartee. It's not really about Hank's ability to disarm others with his wit--or his fists--because these moments only serve as momentary breaks between earnestly dramatic dialogue. And it's not really about Hank learning to grow out of his never-ending cycle of dispassionately hip stimulus-response, because by the end of twelve episodes, you realize that an entire season's worth of growth is essentially jettisoned for the status quo. (Shades of The Graduate aside, the first season's final moments only serve to bring the premise right back to square one.) In the end, it's not really about anything at all.
The show does, however, manage to engross the viewer with the appearance of Meredith (Amy Price-Francis), who strikes up a tenuous relationship with Hank while already locked in a tawdry affair with a married man. Once she wanders into Hank's life (1.2, "Hell-A Woman"), there seems to be a genuine interest in exploring his attempts to understand why he is attracted to women like her and what they mean to him. (Basically, it evokes the feelings that prompted Hank's progenitor Henry Chinaski to pick up a pencil and scrawl his thoughts on bar napkins before they were gone forever.) Even Meredith's departure (1.5, "LOL") is treated with a bittersweet levity that highlights the inevitability of it all--a feeling the series sadly never manages to recapture. Duchovny's inexhaustible deadpan--he forces you to believe that Hank is a writer, even when the script won't--makes "Californication" a worthwhile endeavour, but if it actually bothered to form an opinion on its much-touted depravity and Hank's genuine reactions to the same, you might be bothered to care when it tries to tie up its various loose ends.
All twelve episodes of "Californication: The First Season" come to DVD in a two-disc/two-thinpak set from Paramount. Although the show is typically lit a bit too brightly, you shouldn't lay blame for questionable aesthetic choices like this on the 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced presentation. Take a look at those vital episodes featuring Meredith to understand what it's capable of: flesh tones are a little orange, yet other colours are suffused with a certain greyness that recalls the dreary Los Angeles of the early scenes in Leaving Las Vegas, which is just what the subject needs. The Dolby 5.1 surround sound reaches around to the back channels, though the ambience is a tad weak. (Note that you'll have to manually select 5.1 from the audio set-up menu, as the default setting is loud, crowded DD 2.0 stereo.) There are no extras beyond a photo gallery and cast/crew bios, but a DVD-ROM menu leads you to a host of promotional material for Showtime in addition to the first two episodes from the second seasons of the network's "The Tudors" and "Dexter", along with three episodes of "Bullshit!". When spun in a normal DVD player, both discs begin with a Showtime promo that briefly pimps out the channel's myriad wares. Originally published: September 29, 2008.