By Mary Lyn Maiscott
I like the new Showtime series Californication, but I’m not sure why. At the beginning, Hank Moody (subtle!), played by former X-Filer David Duchovny, was so pricky that one wondered what the creators were up to. Anti-hero: sure, but it seemed clear that we were supposed to like him (and that women, including his ex, for all her protestations, couldn’t resist him). And then there were all those breasts jiggling above him in medias coitus. Was this just an intellectual soft-porn show for pricky men? Hank delighted in insulting his sex partners, saying weird, almost old-fashioned things like “Consider yourself defiled” (or was it “violated”?). And then he blindsided a blind date, a friend of his agent’s wife, by derogatorily sizing up her background, based on nothing but a pleasantry or two from her (and you got the feeling that he was supposed to be, somehow, spot-on).
Which brings me to another problem with the show: it keeps stealing from movies. Hank’s instant character assassination of that unfortunate date has to derive directly from the scene in Annie Hall in which Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), nervous before his stand-up act at Columbia University, takes a look at Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) and does the same kind of synopsis, only without the snideness and with an admission that he’s acting imbecilic. (“No, that was wonderful,” she replies. “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”) Also, unless it’s common in L.A. for women to stand naked in front of men and ask for a sober appraisal of their body—in Californication this happens twice—the writers have borrowed from Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing as well. Moving along, in the third episode, Hank’s agent (played by the ever reliable Evan Handler, Charlotte’s Jewish love on Sex and the City) gets an S&M thing going with his assistant—or should I say Secretary?
The show’s rogue protagonist also gets away with some ridiculous antics, such as stealing an extremely valuable painting—hello, Hank? Does the word larceny ring any bells?
All that aside, there’s something very engaging about the show. For one thing, it holds good writing in esteem. We’re constantly told what a genius Hank (currently suffering from that famous disorder writer’s block) is, and though the passages we hear—from a blog he reluctantly agrees to do for an L.A. magazine, as though blogs had not become an accepted form of expression for writers from James Wolcott to Jane Smiley (and, hey, me!)—aren’t exactly brilliant, they’re occasionally evocative and even moving.
Also, lately Hank has become more of a good guy (focus groups unhappy with the anti-Christ?). I was glad when the maligned blind date reappeared, in that TV way where people always run into people, and Hank offered a true apology and started seeing her (with nary a breast in sight for what Nancy Franklin, in The New Yorker, called the ta-ta cam). In addition, despite his own transgressive ways (his ex tells him he’s drowning “in a sea of pointless pussy,” a phrase deemed so good Hank resurrects it for us in voice-over), Hank attempts to save his agent/friend’s marriage—in the only way he knows, by suggesting maybe his wife is as much a “dirty girl” as his assistant (and within another episode or two, she is). As perhaps a safety catch, Hank has an adolescent daughter, an aspiring rocker with gothic bangs, that he is crazy about and always tries to do right by; and his ex’s pompous fiancé appears to have no redeeming value other than making Hank seem great in contrast, even to the man’s teenage daughter (whom, oops!, Hank has slept with before learning of her age and paternity). Also, Hank is played by Duchovny, whose slightly off good looks (the lower lip and short chin somehow bespeak both poutiness and detachment) and innate intelligence and in-on-the-joke-ness prevent him from being truly villainous.
So this is the balancing act the show now seems to be trying to perform: How far can this contemporary Ginger Man—an allusion Hank would need to explain to most of his young conquests—go while still remaining lovable as well as edible?
And how long will it take for Hank and the series itself to find a unique voice?