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Returning tonight, the devil in a city of angels

September 28, 2008 |  3:20 pm

The thing everyone talks about is the sex. Rightly so, to a point –- it's there in the title, "Californication," and there on the screen –- nudity, lots of it; seven bare-breasted women appear in Season 1, for those scoring at home, and several others in various states of undress. There are drugs too, and the drinks go down easily, and the cigarettes always burn.

And yes, all of that window dressing is there for a reason: “We don't want these people to behave well,” Brendan Bernhard recently wrote in the New York Sun. “We want them to act like they're on an expensive cable channel having too much sex, taking too many drugs, and getting into too many mishaps at an hour when children are supposed to be in bed. ... The show knows exactly what it's about, and I've yet to watch an episode that wasn't entertaining.”

But for every one person or critic entertained, there seems to be another who squirms. When the show first began last summer, you had USA Today on the one end, saying, “the writing and the acting are too good to be wasted on the prurient,” and the New York Times on the other, saying the show was nothing more than male payback for “Sex and the City” but lacked the “wit or sense of place to be very convincing.” For the record, the first reviewer was male, the latter female, and in further Googling, I've found somewhat similar results –- the male, it seems, being more prone to rave, the female more likely to yawn. Plenty of exceptions, of course.

But even our own Mary McNamara, whose reviews I nearly always agree with, said that this show mostly “makes us want to set fire to our hair and run screaming into the street.” More recently, she wrote in a column, “I still loathe 'Californication,' but so many people whose opinions I respect like it that I'm willing to concede it may be simply a matter of taste.”

Call it irony if you must, but all of this recently led me to the most overused phrase of Carrie Bradshaw's mind: I started to wonder... And what I wondered was this: Does liking “Californication” make me some kind of narrow-minded chauvinist?

To answer the question -- or at least try -- I rewatched the first season with a more critical eye. In so doing, I deduced the following: It isn't the sex or even the punchlines that make the show great; it's the honesty. I don't follow Hank Moody into every dark corner just because babes, booze and drugs often await him there, though I will admit that a certain guilty pleasure comes from all of that, just as there were whenever the next man, martini or Manolo heels turned up on “Sex and the City.” But no, what truly addicted me to the Hank Moody character more than anything else was his seeming inability to lie –- a rare virtue for a TV protagonist today, especially one that's set in Los Angeles, where honesty isn't always the currency of choice.

“I don't care, just don't lie,” he once says to a woman he's dating.

“I hate seeing you this sad, ever,” he says to his ex-girlfriend, who's moved on to a guy named Bill, “except maybe after sex with Bill.”

And when he meets Charlie, his friend and agent, for lunch one day, they share the following exchange: “Sorry I'm late. I just...” “You just what?” “... That's all I got.” In another scene, Hank tells Charlie in what is meant to be more reality-check than quip, “Do not underestimate your inability to attract women.”

Ah, yes, and now I hear the shouts. Hank Moody doesn't lie? What about that little I-slept-with-Bill's-16-year-old-daughter problem? OK, fine. But the truth, no matter how sad it may sound or appear in print, is that he didn't know until after it happened that she was Bill's daughter, and he certainly didn't know she was only 16. These facts come to repulse him, but he never outs himself and this one truth for fear of destroying the relationship he shares with the two people in this world whom he truly loves: Karen, the ex whom he's trying to win back, and Becca, their daughter who eventually chooses to move in with him because in spite of himself, he is still a pretty great father. "You're tragically flawed, Dad, but you've got a good heart," she says, to which he replies: "I'll take that."

And interestingly enough, it's Mia, Bill's daughter, who ultimately proves to be the most dishonest and conniving person on the show. Scorned because Hank now wants nothing to do with her, she takes great pleasure in tormenting, threatening and stealing from him. In the final episode of the first season, she was pressed to the brink of telling everyone the truth, and Hank seemed ready to accept his doom, so long as the whole truth came out and not just the ugliest part. “You want to do this? For real? Do it right,” he tells Mia in front of all parties involved. But she can't. She looks him and his daughter in the eye and, knowing that in some rare cases the truth will hurt too many and too much, shows some rare restraint and says that nothing actually did happen.

Last season then ended just where we thought it never could –- at least, not yet -– with Hank actually getting his girl. Karen, after marrying Bill, flees her own wedding reception and jumps into Hank's car, telling him to speed away before she changes her mind. Hank does as he's told, and we're left with an ending reminiscent of “The Graduate,” man and woman, together at last, speeding away to what could be bliss or could be doom.

Somehow, knowing Hank, we know the road must in some way lead to the latter; he never really wants to fail, you see, but he so often does, and we “Californication” fans so enjoy the entertainment that seeps from those failures. We also love those vicarious moments of action –- Hank is the guy who actually punches the cellphone user in the movie theater, along with the man who disrespects his girl,  something many of us might imagine ourselves doing when in reality we steer more toward the civil. And civil is no fun.

Sure, “Californication” is far from perfect -– the amount of fornication that actually does take place often borders on the absurd, and, interestingly enough, it is practically always initiated by the woman. Yes, us guys can only dream. There's also the portrayal of Los Angeles as a soul-eating town and Hank as the tortured-soul writer, both Hollywood cliches. But then again, so are shows about doctors and lawyers, and those just keep on coming.

I don't expect this show to ever be confused with the likes of a “Lost” or a “Mad Men” and the story complexities that accompany them, but I also realize that this show doesn't have that aim. And so long as we're being honest, Hank Moody is in many ways a more stand-up, honest man than Donald Draper (whose name isn't even Donald Draper), and he also tends to have a whole lot more fun.

At 10 on a Sunday night, that's certainly good enough for me, no matter what you may think.

Let the tales of ordinary madness begin anew.

-- Josh Gajewski