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'Californication': Tough love

Welcome to the blog I don't want to write.

The concerned blog.

The one where I have to wonder if maybe I was wrong. After all, I've used this space before to defend this show to anyone who'd ever tried to dismiss it as being little more than soft-core porn, a tale short on substance and long on cheap thrills and gratuitous flesh.

My problem, tonight, is that the following thought trickled into my head: OK, maybe it is about the sex. This happened, I think, right about the time Charlie found himself in a van, a cheap porn production suddenly breaking out beside him. Or no, wait, was it when the party of hookers showed up at Lew Ashby's pad? No no, I think it may have been when little Becca arrived at the lunch table on her first day of school. "Might not want to sit there," a boy said, to which she replied, "Why? Have you got the herp or something?"

Too much. All of this. I didn't laugh. I cringed. 

And tonight, writing this, I'm worried that my favorite little guilty pleasure is losing its way, that it is in fact becoming a little too preoccupied with merely topping itself in the "wow, scandalous!" department and forgetting about its more honest center.

Judy Greer will be my window. My link, if you will, to where this show once was and where it now stands, three episodes into a so-far underwhelming second season. You see, she was one of the hookers at Lew Ashby's house, which thus reunited her with Hank, which thus made for his third such lady reunion in as many episodes -- the hippie, the Scientologist and the hooker (that's definitely the start of a good joke, but I digress...).

The last time we saw Greer's character, Trixie, she was sharing a hotel room with Hank, who was snorting a line of cocaine off of her skin. But there was actually some feeling in the midst of that madness; Hank was destroying himself because his father had just died and that was his way of dealing with the loss of someone he both loved and hated. That episode (titled "California Son") was absolutely brilliant, the best of the bunch, a back-and-forth between his past and present that so effectively illustrated why Hank had become this man. If you haven't seen that episode already, you should probably stop reading this and go find it immediately. Then you'll see just how good this show can be.

In that episode and throughout the first season, there were always emotional strings that tugged at Hank from above, moving our protagonist puppet through those waves of drugs, alcohol, sex and self-loathing. It was sometimes absurd, often hilarious, but always felt strangely real and plausible. I connected with the regret and pain he always carried for having ruined a great love; I empathized with Charlie and Marcy when they got bored in the bedroom even when they clearly still loved each other immensely; and I even appreciated how casually the sex with strangers arrived, because however absurd it sometimes seemed, it said something very true about the dating scene today -- sex has never been easier to find, and love has never been more elusive.

But in these first three episodes of season two, sex is becoming the story. We've had Hank's vasectomy, his accidental nose dive at the party and his new gig as the biographer to Lew Ashby, the renown music producer with hookers at his permanent disposal. And we've got Charlie -- caught on tape, giving himself a raise -– now no longer employed by the big Hollywood talent agency but possibly looking into the field of porn.

To me, it just seems as if this show is suddenly trying too hard to live up to its name, or to shock its Showtime subscribers simply because it feels the need to. What I miss is season one's penchant for delving a little deeper into everyone's psyche, then coming at you with the crazy, unexpected punch to the gut. When the sex arrived, it was usually the salt, not the meal.

That's a recipe I miss, and tonight I long for its return.

-- Josh Gajewski

Comments () | Archives (3)

I agree wholeheartedly with this post. The first season of Californication was exhilarating, but this season is falling a bit flat. Even though season one was filled with lots of gratuitous sex that I could have done without, the dialogue was smart, and the emotional backstory was intriguing. There is not nearly as much punchy dialogue in this season.

Hank's miserable self-loathing and regret were what made the show relatable to a broad audience, but now that he is back together with his love and inevitably loathing himself less, the magic has been taken away.

With all that being said, it seems like Karen and Hank are going to break up again soon, so maybe the sorely needed emotional component will return soon. I still have hope.

It's interesting that you say that specifically about episode 3 because my reaction was that they were finally getting away from the "dare to be shocking" sensibility and finally getting back to the heart of the matter. In fact, I would have put 3 among the better episodes, although I agree with your assessment of California Son being superb. But then to me, the show has never been about the sex or all those naked people-- those were just manifestations of the deeper issues facing the characters.

To me, much of the second season is about Karen. Karen is struggling with her own decisions in life-- her insecurities about work, love, life, etc. It's been easier to blame Hank (who is, admittedly, not blameless) than to deal with the consequences of her own decisions. Hank isn't going to be able to win in that situation because the real issue for Karen isn't Hank-- it's Karen.

Stick with it. I just saw episode 4 on On Demand, and I have to say it was one of the best of the entire series. The performances alone are worth the price of admission.

Interesting point, Kate, about this season revolving more around Karen. In some ways it's hard to ever look at it as anything other than Hank's show, but you're right. I thought the last five minutes of the episode were good, when we were back in the bedroom with just Hank and Karen, but it took 25 long minutes and a painful ride in that van to get there. ...

And yes, I just caught the fourth episode myself. Let's just say I let out a very large sigh of relief, not to mention a belly-full of laughter. The mojo is back.


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