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'Californication': The return of mother and muse

November 1, 2009 | 10:31 pm

All season, “Californication” has searched for fresh air. First, it put Hank Moody in a college classroom, where he could spout his warped wisdom to aspiring scribes, including a hot coed who took a liking to him (naturally). Then it introduced us to Kathleen Turner’s character, someone who took the concept of a “cougar” and turned it into more of a lion. She’s the hungriest sexual creature on earth, and she roars. Peter Gallagher? Sure. Rick Springfield? Why not, bring him the party too.

But maybe the answer was in the nest all along. Karen, Hank’s One True Love and the mother of his child, returned Sunday night and not a moment too soon. Deftly played by the lovely Natascha McElhone, her immediate presence proved far more effective than her absence.  She'd been kept on the fringes of the story since the start of the season. Late-night phone calls, iChat, that sort of thing.

But here she was in the flesh on a visit from New York. She was auditing Hank’s class, auditing his life. And it was only because she knew him so well that there were no surprises. She suspected the coed as well as the teaching assistant. And if she wasn’t so instinctive in sniffing out the resting desires of the dean’s wife, she made up for it by making fun of her “ridiculous accent,” a moment made more hilarious if you were aware of the fact that McElhone was in fact British and faked an American accent to play Karen.
In the end, we were left with that old warm and fuzzy feeling, Becca (Madeleine Martin) tucked into bed, Hank (David Duchovny) and Karen sharing a beer and then a kiss. Never mind that Becca, rebelling via a wine bender this week, was still fuming because Mom and Dad appeared to be pulling a 180. Last season ended with them allowing Becca to stay in California because she was beginning to like it so much, and so Karen went to New York for her new gig while Hank stayed behind. But now they were talking about New York again, Hank and Becca joining Karen in the Big Apple once the semester was over. “This place is toxic. L.A. is no place to raise a daughter,” Karen said at one point.

“That’s my line,” Hank said, before later adding to the idea: “We’re a team alright,” he said of himself and Becca, “just not a very good one. Not without our captain. You’re right: L.A. is no place to raise a daughter or a dad. We need your guidance. We need you, mommy dearest. Really. Even though sometimes we may take it for granted and throw embarrassing hissy fits and get drunk and generally act like we don’t give a ... about anything.”

He kneeled beside her as the two of them passed a cigarette back and forth, and Karen noted that it was nice to see him like this.  I would have to agree. Whereas I once wrote that this show would be better off with Hank and Karen separated from each other, for we somehow needed Hank’s misery just as much as his writing seemed to require it, now I think the show needs Karen after all, because she seems to be the only one able to tame his wild heart, to make him truly care about being a better person. Too often this season, he hasn’t seemed to care much about anyone or anything, and there’s only so much room for that kind of behavior before we begin to just get annoyed by the guy.

And it just seems clear to me now that these two must end up together, that there is no other way, ultimately, for this series to end. But that also puts the show in a precarious place. The series already has been renewed for a fourth season, so how does it not become predictable when we just seem to know that these two must end up together? Or if we put them together again now, as writer Tom Kapinos did at the end of the first season, “Graduate”-style, how will the resulting drama of that situation be better this time than before, when things just seemed to slow down a bit too much?

Forget about the peripherals -- Charlie (Evan Handler) and Marcy (Pamela Adlon), and now the added elements of Kathleen Turner, Rick Springfield and other such characters who too often feel forced into the story for gratuitous laughs. This story has always been a very simple one about Hank, Karen and Becca. Keeping things interesting for another season and a half -- and maybe even another season after that, as Kapinos has hinted at -- will be a huge challenge no matter the direction this show chooses to go.

But Karen’s presence Sunday reminded us of a great time, a simpler time, when we were first introduced to these three principle characters and were enthralled by the dynamic and chemistry they shared. Cheers to McElhone and to the writers for bringing that to us again.

-- Josh Gajewski

One final note: We got a hint of Hank’s writing in this episode, an element of past seasons that I’ve been longing for all season, though here the material was limited to a small piece of a story that Hank himself describes as “execrable.” He didn’t tell his class what we later learned, that he’d written this story when he was 23. The execrable excerpt:

Eva lifts her head from her book and regards the curious figure striding her way. A faint hint of a smile appears on her face. Adam slows down, reaching her table. Their eyes meet and it looks like Adam is going to do it, but whaddaya know, folks? He averts his eyes and keeps right on walking, jamming his hands in his pockets.
“I can’t believe you kept this ridiculous story,” Karen said to him after class. “I kept all the stuff about you,” he answered.


Tom Kapinos talks about Season 4

Natascha McElhone as muse and creator

Photo: Karen (Natascha McElhone) and Hank (David Duchovny) get close on Sunday's episode of "Californication." Credit: Showtime