Showtime Entertainment // 2007 // 340 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // July 9th, 2008
Hank Moody...No man is more committed to a midlife crisis.
Californication makes you wish you could crawl back into the womb and relive the experience of watching it for the first time. But it is no one-trick pony; each scene is rewatchable even after you know what's coming, growing in magnitude as you ponder the nunaces of dialogue and acting. Californication is a delicious loss of virginity paired with impressive staying power.
Hank Moody (David Duchovny, Red Shoe Diaries) is a New York fish swimming in LA springwater. He's an analog guy in a digital world. An outsider who loathes his own belonging to the Hollywood machine. His dark, smash-hit novel has been turned into a glossy romcom by a hack director. Meanwhile, Hank's lover Karen (Natascha McElhone, City of Ghosts) has left him, taking their 13-year old daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin JoJo's Circus) to live with her new fiancee Bill (Damian Young, The Darkroom).
While trying to preserve Becca's trust and regain Karen's favor, Hank swills whiskey, sleeps around, and confesses all to his agent, Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler, Sex and the City). Charlie has his own problems, of course. He's caught in an akward situation between his wife Marcy Runkle (Pamela Adlon, King of the Hill) and his bumbling secretary, Dani (Rachel Miner, Tooth and Nail) -- who is not all she appears to be.
Finally, Hank must contend with Mia (Madeline Zima, A Cinderella Story), a one-night standee who insinuates herself into his life with unexpected frequency.
You should, within approximately two minutes, be able to tell if Californication will send you into apoplectic fits of indignant rage or if it will be the funniest thing you've ever seen on television (with all due respect to Arrested Development). The dividing line is something like this. If you could find it funny to watch your Dad snort lines of coke off a hooker's ass while covering Jesus's eyes with his hand, then Californication will tickle your funnybone -- with a pressure washer. It makes no apologies whatsoever, but at the same time strives for authenticity. Thus it shows breasts (and David Duchovny's ass) instead of gravity-defying, swoop-shaped bedsheets. It shows people smoking pot instead of making thinly veiled allusions to drug use. Characters are shaded, not one dimensional. The adults make choices both good and bad and there are realistic consequences. In short, Californication pulls no punches and treats the viewer like a thinking, subversive adult.
The show nails it's vibe perfectly for many reasons, but two of the most obvious are writing and acting. If you buy into the axiom that "writers write best about what they know," then you should expect a little extra zing from a series written by edgy Hollywood screenwriters about an edgy Hollywood screenwriter. The writers take personal pride in Hank's character and the immersive details of the script. In fact, I sometimes got the impression that they were establishing cliched situations with obvious resolutions simply for the opportunity to bust said cliches wide open. Take, for example, the hoary old "speak now or forever hold your piece" bit, which is the central dramatic point in a romantic comedy; in the hands of the Californication writing staff, this pivotal moment becomes delicious chaos peppered with double entendres about the absurdity of the line "speak now or forever hold your piece."
I'd love to go into greater detail about the writing, about how the unique turns of phrase in the dialog resonated in my mind for days afterward, making me burst into uncontrolled fits of laughter at inopportune times. But there's no way to discuss the writing without using words that we can't in good conscience publish here. And I'm not talking about fuck or shit or any other common naughty word you might be thingking about right now, but truly mind-warping phrases.
So how about those actors? David Duchovny was an adequate leading man for Red Shoe Diaries and that other show he was in. He drew heat from detractors for being placid and unreadable. Californication suggests that writing and direction, not Duchovny, may have been to blame for that perception. Duchovny enthusiastically responds to this material, taking risks that it is difficult for actors to take. His vulnerability (and yes, even nuances) make the character alive. Hank provokes tension. Not tension that comes from high-pitched Mrs. Doubtfire or Meet the Parents embarassment; rather, tension that comes from being invested in a character that might break your heart with the next word.
As the lead it is easy to single out David Duchovny, but his chemistry with each actor is the heart of this show. For example, he and Natascha McElhone give the Hank/Karen relationship a palpable sense of love complete with flirtation, frustration, and unwilling attraction. McElhone sidesteps obvious reactions in favor of a complex push-pull. Meanwhile, Madeline Zima brings dark, quirky intensity to Mia and uses Duchovny as a foil. When it comes to "the boys," Duchovny and Evan Handler are hysterical as they build the warped camaraderie of their characters. Even the cast members who are arguably supporting actors -- Pamela Adlon, Madeleine Martin, Damian Young, and Rachel Miner -- do so much with their characters that each quickly assumes full-fledged roles in the story. Adlon is a sharpshooter with her dry wit, uttering lines that glided right over my head only to swat me in the ass later on. Rachel Miner will likely capitalize on the sparks she generates with the warped character of Dani, so keep an eye on her career. There is no weak link in the cast. You'll spend no time twiddling your thumbs waiting for the "main" relationship to take center stage.
This season begins as a lighthearted romp through the psyche and lifestyle of an existential, truth-obsessed writer with a healthy libido and an unhealthy liver. The comedy quickly turns dark and subversive, but nevertheless remains comedy. At some point, probably around the point that you become invested in the idea of Hank reuniting with his family, real antagonists manifested themselves. The last several episodes achored the trademark comedy to a solid ball of tension that sat in the pit of my stomach. As for the finale, it is everything you could hope for and more, resolving certain threads while leaving you wondering just how messed up these people are going to get.
The show looks and sounds good to boot. Cinematographer Michael Weaver has taken a cue from Krzysztof Kieslowski and Slawomir Idziak's cinematography in The Double Life of Veronique, filtering the show into warm reds and muted greens with a heightened sense of accent colors. The difference is that Californication is digital. There is a telltale edge to some of the quick diagonal motion that betrays the digital camera, but somehow the digital camerawork accents realism at the same time. Californication is big on music, opening and closing with nothing less than The Rolling Stones and peppering the show with tasteful, interesting musical "moments" such as when Becca's band rehearshes by the pool. Madeleine Martin actually sings, which gives a potential "cute" moment real interest. The soundtrack has an uneven quality, with some outdoor scenes sounding washed out and thin. There is little bass and the surrounds are inconsistently used. Yet when the grand sonic moments kick in, Californication is up to the task.
Aside from the "new Ebridge Technology," which is a fancy way to access a website, Californication: The First Season is scant on extras. Extensive bios and a non-extensive photo gallery supplement the only real extra, which is a hilarous and surprisingly on-task commentary between David Duchovny, the show's creator Tom Kapinos, and pilot director Stephen Hopkins.
As Californication unfolded its twisted arc of character development and outrageous dialog, I constantly hit the backwards button in order to rewatch the last conversation. It was an awkward way to watch the show, but missing a word would be criminal. It also delayed the inevitable moment when all of the episodes would be over and the long wait for Season Two would begin. If you have even mild interest in a hair-curling onslaught of sex, love, and sharp wit, do not overlook Californication.
The court orders everyone to stay off of Hank Moody's case.
Review content copyright © 2008 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 340 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on pilot episode by actor David Duchovny, creator Tom Kapinos, and director Stephen Hopkins
* Cast biographies
* Photo gallery
* Online access to episodes of Dexter and The Tudors
* Official Site