Monday, March 14, 2011

How 'Californication' Should End

"Californication" hasn't always had the clearest sense of direction.  As with most shows these days, it's always had season-long story arcs -- one season is about writing a music producer's biography, another season is about taking a teaching position at a university, etc. -- that act as clotheslines upon which smaller stories can be hung.  But the show has typically been short-sighted, more concerned with the smaller day-to-day adventures of the main character rather than the broader scope of his life.  Until the current season...




For those of you unfamiliar, "Californication" is a guilty pleasure series whose primary objective is to get as many up-and-coming young actresses as possible to take their clothes off for the camera.  David Duchovny stars as novelist and sometime-screenwriter Hank Moody.  The quintessential "bad boy with a heart of gold," Hank juggles more women than James Bond would know what to do with while always pining for the domestic-life-that-could-have-been with his teenage daughter, Becca, and her mother, Karen.

"Californication" is also a prime example of a growing sub-genre of cable series that manage to be good enough to keep you watching, but bad enough to make you question why you do.  It crosses into unbelievable territory far too often... which would be fine, except that in other moments it wants you to confront heartbreaking realities.  The tone is, let's say, inconsistent.

The downfall of many of these "Good Enough/Bad Enough" cable series is that they're bogged down by dull characters that can't be gotten rid of.  In the case of "Californication," it's the afore-mentioned Karen and Becca, who bring the show to a screeching halt whenever they're on screen.  It's hardly the fault of the actresses (although I won't argue the complaints about Madeleine Martin's acting) -- Karen and Becca are, unfortunately, symbols and plot devices more than characters.  They serve as Hank's ultimate goal (happy family life) and moral compass (regret for his bad behavior).

At least some attempt is made to realize Becca as a fully developed character, with actual goals and motivations of her own.  Somewhere along the line she started playing guitar and has since set herself on a path to become a rock star.  Best of luck to her; but we, the audience, don't care.  Her dad is doing far more interesting things, and that's the show we signed up for.

Karen has no such goals and motivations.  In the first season, she had gotten engaged to an upstanding businessman.  This, of course, rankled Hank, and he set out to prevent the wedding.  That wasn't much characterization for Karen in the first place, but she's had even less to do ever since.  By now, she shows up just to harangue Hank for two to ten minutes every episode and then move on.  This makes her immensely unlikable, and makes us wonder why Hank is so enthralled by her.  Having unconditional love for your own offspring is understandable.  But why does Hank want Karen around?  We've seen what his life is like when she's out of the picture, and it's far more noteworthy.

But it's a catch-22.  The catalyst for the entire series was Hank's determination to win back his ex-girlfriend and his daughter, despite his compulsive self-sabotaging via sex and drugs and anti-authoritarian behavior.  From an audience perspective, the sex and drugs and anti-authoritarian behavior are way more interesting.  We want to spend all our time on those, and as little time as possible with the ex and the daughter.  But if the writers were to get rid of the ex and daughter, then Hank has no hope of achieving his personal goals.  So there's no choice but to keep those characters around, and to keep Hank perpetually pining for their affections.  Hank keeps trying to make things right with them, screwing it up, but managing to keep them just happy enough to allow him into their lives.  It's a perpetual motion machine.  And it could literally go on this way as long as the network and the writers want it to.




But then this season (its fourth), the writers pushed something forward that's been more damaging to Hank Moody than anything that's come before.  It's been brought to light that Hank slept with an underaged girl, and he's been formally charged with statutory rape.  This has been handled remarkably well by the writers, especially considering the show's proclivity for "Bad Enough" territory.  It would have been easy to get bogged down in heavy drama, and to lose the character of Hank.  But no, Hank has remained Hank -- sleeping around, drugging around, running up debt -- even while he's on the verge of being convicted of one of the most serious crimes against civilized society.

In other words, this season has been the best yet in finding that balance between the unbelievable and the heartbreaking.  As of yet, our hearts haven't been broken.  But there's a lot of very subtle tension building up, and I'm loving it.  Hank Moody is on the verge of a total meltdown -- one that is absolutely true to the character and has been earned by the show.  And in order to truly deliver on all this potential, Hank Moody needs to become the fictionalized Charlie Sheen.

Yes, this is a Charlie Sheen article!  Sorry if this feels like a sneak attack.  Frankly, I was reluctant to say it, but there it is.

Look, Charlie Sheen is a real person who needs real help.  He's been really abusive to real people.  He is not beyond redemption, but he has a lot of work to do.  I'm not making light of his situation, and I'm not pretending to have any sort of valuable insight into it.  I'm talking about a TV show that has never had anything to do with any real people (except maybe Rick Springfield), which now finds itself in a position to shed a little light on the destructive nature of addiction.

And incidentally, if the makers of "Californication" had gone into the series with the explicit intention of making a fictional version of Charlie Sheen, I would have considered that crass exploitation.  But they've always been doing their own thing.  It just so happens that this moment of reality has converged in such a way that, through no design of their own, they've found themselves in a position to bring a bit of enlightenment to their audience.  And believe me, that's more ambition than a guilty pleasure show such as "Californication" ever desired.

Granted, Charlie Sheen has never been accused of statutory rape.  But other than that, there are more similarities than dissimilarities between him and Hank Moody.  The excesses, the wild child extravagances; the looks and the charm and the cleverness to pretty much have the world in the palm of your hands, yet the destructive tendencies to be able to lose it all in a heartbeat.  (Maybe I'm just a jealous troll.)  And through the anguish and the sympathy of the otherwise extraneous Karen and Becca, we could get a sense of the impact such behavior has on loved ones.  Those characters would finally serve a greater purpose to the audience, rather than just a thin purpose for Hank's motivations.  It's all there.

I'm not saying the producers of "Californication" should go all "ripped-from-the headlines" with Sheen.  I'm saying they've already done it without even meaning to.  If they commit to what they've already set up -- that Hank has sewn the seeds of his own destruction, and that he may not be able to handle the consequences -- then I think "Californication" is in a better position to illuminate the Charlie Sheen situation than any Johnny-come-lately biographer who's looking to cash in on a celebrity's downfall.  And that's the way I'd rather see it unfold.

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