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Revisiting "Californication": Does a Show's Moral Footing Matter When It's Got Rob Lowe Miming Hummers?

By Seth Freilich | TV | February 23, 2011 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | February 23, 2011 |

Four years ago, when reviewing David Duchovny’s then-new Showtime comedy, I noted that, while there was comedy to mine in Hank Moody’s escapades and romps, it appeared that “Californication’s” underlying emotional thread would focus on Hank trying to get centered and fix his broken relationships with his daughter and ex-wife. I wondered if the show was going to achieve the same mix of drama and comedy that “Weeds,” at the time, was doing so well. “Weeds,” as we know, has long since gone off the rails. “Californication,” now on its fourth season, has never managed to find the emotional, uhm, highs that “Weeds” found in its early seasons but, unlike its sister-show, it also has yet to lose sight of the fact that comedy allows the viewer to forgive certain other failings, which is why I’m still watching the show.

But it’s not without reservations that I’ve stuck with the show because, a few laughs an episode aside, “Californication” is troubling as it continues to embrace and glamorize its misogyny, creeping ever closer to being a being a show I don’t want to watch anymore despite the comedy and my love for Duchovny. It was clear from the beginning that Hank Moody, being a sardonic black sheep who looks like David Duchovny, was going to take many lovers over the course of this show. And that’s fine, particularly given the notion that bedding women is one of the few ways Moody has found to cope with how much he dislikes himself (and even potentially more resonant now that we know a bit about Duchovny’s own personal problems in that vein).

But over the series, the show has not handled this well. Hank doesn’t generally slum because he needs a connection. Rather, invariably and almost without fail, every attractive woman who meets him can’t help but bed him because he’s just so pretty and such a broken rogue. They throw themselves at him and he can’t help himself. Now, you could argue that this is actually about female empowerment, because these are independent women making their own decision to have a good romp in the hay, and they recognize how broken Hank is and are eyes-wide-open to the reality of the situation. But you’d lose that argument, as evidenced by even the recent relationship between Moody and his attorney, played by Carla Gugino (and don’t get me wrong — I will never fault an artistic endeavor for giving us Gugino in her skivvies). She repeatedly talks about how completely broken Hank is. And a week or two ago, she gave a long spiel about how she’s chosen her career over a settled-down family life, and she can still get her goods off whenever she wants, and she’s happy with position of power. Yet the moment she inevitably beds Hank, she immediately starts talking about a relationship. It’s disappointing and more than a little condescending to those women out there who rightfully believe they are defined by more than a relationship with a man.

Not every woman Hank sleeps with suddenly wants to be with him forever, but even those that don’t still wind up being completely enamored and unable to get his hooks out of them. And none more so than his ex-wife Karen (who, despite the poor writing as to her character’s motivations, is played extremely well by the insanely lovely Natascha McElhone). Hank has done horrible things to Karen, to their daughter, to their relationships, time and time and time again. And yet she is always willing to stay with him, to give him another chance. Each season, he does some horrible thing to blow up their happily-renewed existence, and invariable, her proper rage eventually recedes and they wind up back together. It’s never really fully explained, and the crutch of “it’s good for the ‘family’” has long since passed, and so it winds up being a bit infuriating. Particularly because I think Karen used to be a legitimate character with her own motivations — but now, I can’t tell you what her job is and what her purpose is aside from being Hank’s ex (and no scene she’s in has a hope of passing the Bechdel Test).

I get the “bad boy” thing — I know that there are a lot of chicks that can’t help themselves, and I’ve seen my own friends succumb to the bad boy. But “Californication” tries to have it every way — Hank is the prototypical “bad boy,” but even though he’s completely broken, they try to make it like his shit is harmless. And the show would have you believe that every single woman in the world throws any principal of moral or value aside when the right man comes storming through their presence.

Ultimately, “Californication” has failed to live up to the emotional potential of its premise. It rings emotionally and creatively false in almost every regard and is similar to “Entourage” in that every mistake that should take the characters two step backwards actually takes them one step forward. However, “Entourage” never endeavored to have any real stakes, so it was easy to forgive its falseness in the name of comedy. Of course, when the laughs long ago dried up on “Entourage,” there was nothing left to the show. Here, “Californication” still does have some comedy to it, which makes the course it’s taken all the more disappointing, because there was the potential for this show to be a very funny, emotionally heavy, dramedy.

But even if I 100% wanted to quit the show, I can’t right now. Because Rob Lowe is currently knocking it out of the park in his guest role (he’s been on two episodes so far) as an Oscar-winning actor who may play Hank in a movie based on Hank’s most recent book. I know it’s only February, but Lowe should be given the guest star Emmy right now (and coupled with his equally funny, and very different, stint on “Parks & Recreation,” I have a newfound respect for the man who, ironically given the context of his role on “Californication,” was once involved in his own underage sex scandal). Lowe is simply amazing on the show, and I’m glad I’m still watching it just to get to see him. If “Californication” can keep delivering guest performances likes this, I can’t exactly forgive it for its many many problems, but I can at least come to an agreement to continue watching despite them. But I won’t stop regretting the fact “Californication” could have done some really interesting things with the character of Hank Moody but chooses instead, at every turn, to the easy, disappointing and cheap way out.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.