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'Californication': Punch, drunk, love

December 14, 2009 |  6:41 am

Californication_312_0715a[1] For the first time in too long, the show about the artist felt inspired. It felt original. It again made you feel.

Then, too soon, it was over. The old friend you hadn't seen in so long was gone again. And now, you don't know when or even if he'll return.

Yes, there will be a fourth season of "Californication" next year. No, we don't know which version will arrive. Will it be the show we saw Sunday night, with such soul, such life, such artistry? Or will it be what we saw for the better part of this season, a show that seemed to accept and even embrace the reputation given to it by those who never watched, or only casually -- nothing more than a guilty pleasure in which David Duchovny jumped from bed to bed? Even the star, Duchovny himself, said this on Page 68 of a September issue of Rolling Stone: "The show is more intelligent than people give it credit for, because they're blinded by the [sex]. But that's just human nature. In the business, you have 10 seconds to advertise your show. You can say (a) it's about a guy who is trying to get back to his first love, or (b) it's about a guy who [has sex] every week. OK, we're going with (b). That's it's calling card."

Those of us who'd invested in the first two seasons knew there was more. In Season 1, there were those Hell-A blogs, the hilarious but dead-on musings of a New York writer trapped in Los Angeles. In Season 2, there were episodes so fully infused with artistic references both subtle and not that I had to devote a separate section of this blog just to keep track of them and do them justice. "The Great Gatsby" provided the outline for the season, but in a rock-n-roll world, we got such diamonds as "In Utero," a beautifully written and shot flashback episode in which the show borrowed both the title and themes from Nirvana's final studio album to creatively introduce us to how the Hank-Karen-Becca dynamic began 14 years earlier.

Then came the stumble. Season 3. Which was perhaps foretold by an advertising campaign that included badly Photoshopped posters of Hank Moody (Duchovny) surrounded by faceless, leggy blond coeds, the tagline reading: "Meet Professor Moody. He's easy." So was the whole concept. What followed was a whole lot of Eva Amurri's cleavage, a professor-student dalliance that was a foregone conclusion from the moment we saw those posters and then, worst of all, Kathleen Turner and Rick Springfield. Nothing against those two, just their characters. They had little (Turner's Sue Collini) to no (Springfield) redeeming qualities, and their story lines never really went anywhere other than the gutter.

In between, there were glimmers of hope in the form of Karen (Natascha McElhone) and Becca (Madeleine Martin), anchors to Hank Moody and -- obvious to me now -- anchors to this show. When they weren't around is when the show seemed to suffer most. Case in point: an episode in which Becca goes off to visit Karen in New York, leaving us with nothing but a boys' weekend with Hank and a man named Zloz, Hank's buddy from Long Island. The episode sputtered, giving us another actor intruding upon our story for little to no reason. I also remember Peter Fonda coming into one show for some reason, though I'm trying to forget.

For me, this was all beginning to add up to a painful decision. Though there were those glimmers of hope, they seemed too few and far between. I didn't recognize the show anymore. We'd grown apart. And so I entered this season finale thinking a little bit like Hank Moody. "So here's the thing ... "

I was contemplating a breakup. Beyond this season, I just wasn't sure if I could stick with it.

Then, Sunday. In short, it was a 30-minute-long exhale. My baby was back.

Inspired instead of indulgent, we saw breathtaking dream sequences, dialogue that was honest and heartfelt and then, ultimately, a heart-wrenching final few minutes that couldn't have been more wonderfully shot. A shaky camera followed a bloodied Hank back into his home, past the boxes packed for New York and into the kitchen, where Karen awaited. "I have to tell you something," he said, kissing her hand. And for the next few minutes. we saw Karen's heart break even if we didn't hear her words. The long-kept Mia secret was out, and for those last few minutes of the last episode of Season 3, we heard only a remixed version of Elton John's "Rocket Man" playing over the tears, the screams, the curses, the punches, drowning us, drowning Hank, as he ultimately found himself being shoved into a police car and taken away.

For those viewers who latched onto only this season -- and judging by the ratings, there must be many -- this episode and this ending might have seemed entirely off, a different show than what you'd seen for the better part of the last few months. But for those of us who have been with this story from the start, this felt like a nod to a better time. In fact, you fellow long-timers probably recall that "Rocket Man" was also the song that played over the final scene of the pilot, Hank tapping the keys of his laptop, a certain curse word appearing on our TV screen before we cut to black.

Complemented also by an amazing monologue by Madeleine Martin's Becca and a superbly evil guest-starring turn from James Frain ("The Tudors"), this was an episode that was by far better than anything else we've seen this season and easily one of the best episodes in the series' history. But where it puts the series as a whole remains a little gray, though of course that's no surprise given the way these finales end. Show-runner Tom Kapinos usually doesn't know whether a green light is in store for another season while filming, and so he smartly opts for finales that could serve as adequate series finales.

The first season ended "Graduate"-style with Karen escaping her own wedding and jumping into the car with Hank and Becca. The second ended with Karen going off to New York, leaving Hank and Becca to fend for themselves in L.A. And now this, the third, Hank leaving in the police car on the darkest of notes. In a weird way, I think this, too, could serve as an adequate series finale, for the complete demise of a man is just as real to me as his redemption, even if we don't see the former story line played out nearly as much on TV and in film.

But we already know that we're coming back now for Season 4, and Kapinos has hinted at a possible fifth season as well. The trouble with the road ahead is that, at this point, the only way this story will remain truly compelling is if something significantly changes. If, say, we begin with Hank getting out of jail and then drowning himself in more women and booze because Karen and Becca have turned away, then what will be the point? It'll be the same lonely story, though we'll somehow know that at the end of this whole thing, he'll get his family back. He has to, doesn't he?

But episodes like this give me hope. If "Californication" can find a way to further tap into the creativity that flowed through this finale and also through much of the first two seasons, then maybe there is a way for it still to swim. But if Hank Moody just ends up in the same place again, left only with more booze and beds and bar fights, then it might again find itself in mud.

For all of its popularity and success, HBO's "Entourage" has earned somewhat of a reputation for being a show that really doesn't go anywhere. It's just the never-ending rise and fall of Vincent Chase, albeit often entertaining. This show is in danger of finding itself in a similar plight, but we've seen glimpses in the past and then on Sunday night of just how good "Californication" can be. It has the potential to elevate itself above being just another one of cable's late-night guilty pleasures, especially with one of the biggest weapons on television in David Duchovny. The guy is  so gifted at hitting every single note that's been asked of him -- but perhaps not enough has been asked.

Duchovny's Hank is a character many of us have grown to love so much that we might watch regardless, even if it's just for those few great moments amid all the rest. But the question now is whether we'll continue to swim in this same pool or whether we'll actually find something different next season, something truly new and exciting. The magic is there. And if the show can somehow find a way to take itself as seriously as it did for this finale, then perhaps these glimmers of hope will finally widen into brighter days.

-- Josh Gajewski


David Duchovny, literarily speaking

Evan Handler, grateful

Photo: David Duchovny as Hank Moody in "Californication." Credit: Showtime