I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react to Californication

I tuned into this show a little while after it started, as I was curious to see what Mulder was up to these days. I was bored and more than a little annoyed by the show’s overwhelming tone of undeserved smugness and superiority. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good intellectual victory lap as much as the next guy, and have always appreciated scenes where a boor is put down with the absolute perfect rejoinder – but that’s not what Californication is. It’s a cut-rate version thereof. It’s a show about a smart person written by profoundly stupid people.

Okay, to be fair, they might not be idiotic, they might just be assuming that their audience is. How can I tell? Here’s a screenshot from the opening credits montage.

You see, they needed an image to establish that the main character, one ‘Hank Moody’ (Get it? His name describes what he is! It’s clever!) is a novelist. How can this be accomplished? By having him read a bizarre bigger-than-a-magazine-yet-smaller-than-a-newspaper thing with the words ‘Book Critic’ on it! Of course! Although he’s not actually reading it, he’s just holding it up in front of his face. Which is an appropriate message, because this really isn’t a show for ‘readers’.

After quickly tuning out for the remainder of the first season I tuned back in for part of season two because I’d seen that Callum Rennie was going to be on it, and that guy’s just plain entertaining, even when starring in the worst show ever. After a few episodes I realized that even though Californication was the second worst show ever, at least Rennie made it somewhat bearable with his magnetic performance in an utterly cliched role as a burnt-out record producer who needs Hank’s help to write an autobiography. Naturally the character was killed off, lest someone notice that Rennie was more interesting than their lead, but despite the fact that I should have been warned off by this terrible decision (as if the season-long subplot about one of the characters producing a pornographic version of the film Chinatown hadn’t been enough of a tip-off), I elected to tune in to the first couple of episodes, morbidly curious about just how low the show could sink.

I was quickly lured into caring by the appearance of Peter Gallagher’s name in the opening credits, because he’s Peter God-Damn Gallagher, that’s why, then beaten down by every other element of the show. What baffled/disgusted me most about the show was Hank, the main character. After watching more than a dozen episodes of the show, I have no idea how I’m supposed to react to the main character. They want him to seem clever and sexy, but it’s accomplished not by having him actually say intelligent things (like a Don Draper) or express charisma that comes through the screen (also like a Don Draper). They attempt to accomplish it by having everyone around him be even dumber than he is, and having hot women constantly throw themselves at him without him having to put in effort of any kind. Oh, except for driving a completely trashed Porsche.

My question – am I supposed to like this character? He’s a sleazy idiot who everyone seems to love for no good reason. If that wasn’t bad enough, his defining characteristic is that he wanders into people’s lives and makes them worse.

Let’s take a look at his first meeting with Peter Gallagher’s character. He plays the dean of a college, and the father of Hank’s daughter’s only friend. If Hank’s daughter existed as something other than a two-dimensional plot device, she might have more than just the one friend, but she’s not, so she doesn’t. Hank is invited to dinner at Peter’s house, and while driving through the narrow streets of the college campus, he finds himself stuck behind a cyclist. After attempting to run the cyclist off the road for briefly inconveniencing him, Hank is so offended that the cyclist would swear in response that he throws a lit cigarette at the cyclist’s face, causing him to crash into a concrete planter.

Naturally, that was Peter Gallagher, leading to some awkwardness at the dinner. But Hank’s not done for the night, no. While congratulating another author on being hired as a creative writing teacher at the school, Hank insists that the man share a drink with him, despite the man’s repeated and forceful protests that he doesn’t want alcohol. Naturally the man turns out to be an alcoholic, and Hank’s meddling drives him right back into the bottle, costing him his job.

So, to recap, in the course of two hours Hank almost kills a man for the sin of riding a bicycle, then destroys a man’s career because he didn’t want to drink alone.

So am I supposed to hate him? This is like a Sopranos thing, right, where I’m supposed to hate the main character?

Things get even worse in the next episode, where we see Hank attempting to teach, by which I mean making fun of the guy writing about gay vampires, and having the student who happens to be a stripper immediately start coming on to him. His irreverent and ‘naughty’ teaching style leads to the following words being written on the classroom’s whiteboard.

That’s the dean’s wife (who naturally is also desperately hot for Hank) looking at the board. So when Hank is called into the Dean’s office the next day, he assumes that he’s being disciplined about the use of the word ‘niggardly’. He sarcastically defends himself to Peter and the wife, explaining that he’s an edgy teacher, and that it’s a totally acceptable word to use.

While Hank is technically correct in his statement, something is clearly being overlooked – no one in America would ever use the word Niggardly except in the hopes of getting a shocked or surprised reaction from their audience. There are plenty of other adjectives that would have worked here, but he chose the only one with a ‘taboo’ air about it, while not actually being as dangerous as using an actual slur. He's the kind of person who'd say 'Niggardly' solely for the purpose of getting indignant and feeling intellectually superior when someone questioned him on the subject later.

This is roughly the same as the time that Bart discovered that Homer’s brother Herb was technically a bastard, giving him the chance to say a ‘dirty’ word with impunity.

What I’m saying is that this is a show about a main character with the emotional maturity level of an eight-year-old.

Then, of course, Peter finally reveals that he’s actually talking about the fact that the kid who wrote about vampires in the class had attempted to kill himself after getting harsh criticism from Hank. And this is how Hank responds:

How on earth am I supposed to even empathize with that guy? Am I even supposed to? Should I keep watching in hope that someone will give that smug prick the ass-kicking he so profoundly deserves? Yeah, probably not, because I don’t think the people making this show even realize what an awful scumbag they’re writing about.

Okay, now I’m just sad.

But hey, if you're just a fan of X-Files alumni, then check out Sons of Anarchy, where Mitch Pileggi gets to work on a much better show.

I'm not sure what Gillian Anderson is up to.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. Best review ever!

Anonymous said...

For someone who hates this show you've sure spent a lot of time watching it/ranting about it.

Anonymous said...

Ditto "Anonymous...March 14, 2011"

Mary said...

Thank you.

Californication is indeed the worst show I've ever seen. Smug and stupid with no redeeming value at all.
I wish you'd out in what you felt was your number one worst show, as you listed this garbage as number 2? I have been trying hard to think of any show we bad as this one...

Anonymous said...

Here I have stumbled across the blog of a pseudo-intellectual with no life whose writing is as flamboyant and self righteous as the character he is attempting to slate.

Don't be so niggardly.