"I probably won't go down in history, but I will go down on your sister."
- Hank Moody
This cable show is not rated, but this review is Rated R for language and adult themes. If you are under 17, you must have a parent or guardian accompany your eyes on every word.
Okay, everyone...pay attention: Vagina. Vagina, vagina, vagina. If that word or any of its variations (vaganus, pussy, snatch, etc.) make you uncomfortable, don't watch Californication. And while we're at it, let's get out some other words and phrases you should acquaint yourself with: angina, asshole bleaching, butt plug, clit-lit (and clit-boner), cocksucker, dick punch, "finger-banging your cat", labia, lady juice, pubis, sphincter, swamp ass, titty twister and "shucking your hairless clam." (George Carlin, we salute you!)
And that's just a taste of what awaits you in Showtime's adult-themed hit show that started in August of 2007. It's the male version of Sex and the City--the main protagonist is a sexually active writer/columnist, and his best friend is played by SITC regular Evan Handler--but Californication has a little more estrogen than Entourage. You can't always get what you want, and no one knows that better than Hank Moody (David Duchovny), an apathetic, egocentric, bitter, self-loathing sex fiend who never met a vice he didn't like. "I love women," he says. "I have all their albums."
But Hank frequently treats a lot of them like crap--which they (like his family) put up with. He's also stuck in a five-year bout with writer's block, although his third novel--the nihilistic God Hates Us All--has just been rewritten into a hit Hollywood film, a romantic comedy that goes against everything Hank believes in. But the kickbacks sure are nice: "As soon as I cashed that check, I wrapped my lips around the mighty erection that is the film industry and sucked hard, just like a good whore should."
Hank soon finds a new outlet as a blogger for Hell-A magazine, a gig he hates--just like the city itself. He yearns to ditch California and head back to New York City, and take his girlfriend Karen (Natascha McElhone) and their daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin, channeling Christina Ricci circa The Addams Family) with him. But there's a big problem: Having tired of their relationship, Karen cheated on Hank and then left him. "Imagine my disappointment when you turned out to be the biggest cliché of them all, sitting there Googling yourself," she says, acknowledging that sex was the only thing they did right together. "You're out there sticking your dick in anything that moves."
She now lives in the Venice home of new boyfriend Bill (the ubiquitous Damian Young), with a wedding on the way. They are joined by Bill's 16-year-old attention-seeking daughter Mia (Madeline Zima, right), a modern-day Lolita who soon becomes a huge thorn in Hank's side. Meanwhile, Hank's best bud and agent Charlie (Handler) finds himself straying from wife Marcy (Pamela Adlon) after his sultry secretary Dani (Rachel Miner, below, redeeming herself for the aptly titled Penny Dreadful, one of the worst movies ever made) comes on to him.
The 12 episodes of the first season (each about a half-hour long; Season 2 premieres in the fall of 2008) have Hank constantly getting himself into hot water as he desperately tries to charm back Karen and be a good father to the whip-smart Becca, a budding musician who's more of an adult than any other character (and the most positively written female on the show). And boy does Hank have a lot of sex, but he does have his limits: "My testicles are not available for timeshare." It seems every woman in the city wants his junk, and almost all of them get it (he even gets an unintentionally man-inspired boner, or "broner", at one point), while Hank's vivid dreams provide more lewd opportunities for the show.
The raunchy material often goes for the jugular--be it verbal or visual--and frequently hits a homerun. It's gross and hysterical (think There's Something About Mary, but far better), and frequently had me (sorry, Hank!) LOL. Episode 2 has the funniest anal sex scene I have ever seen (and I've seen a lot of them, my friends), while one threesome builds to a disgustingly hysterical climax. Another threesome ends in equally memorable disaster, while a painful hook-up for Hank becomes a recurring joke. I also enjoyed Hank's attempted rescue of a lover's pooch (one with an ironic name).
I initially felt the series was heavily geared toward men. And while I still do, it does soften up a little after the first few episodes (the pilot seems to be in male fantasy overdrive, with the boob count at 6...err, 12). A lot of the women characters here--especially the ones who wander in and out of Hank's bed--may not be the best role models for your daughters, but as the show progresses it becomes clear that Hank does have a heart, and some of the lead female characters get more time to grow and shine--while also proving that their mouths are just as filthy. Still, when a publisher (the underused Mo Collins) notes of Hank's new novel, "It's like your early stuff: Not so juvenile, not so many lame boner jokes," I wondered if that was an acknowledgement from the writers.
For me, the show is frequently stolen by Adlon. Marcy provides some of the most jaw-dropping lines, all perfectly placed and delivered (many with an acerbic tone, epecially when she's trying to be accommodating to Charlie):
- "Pretend I'm paralyzed! I'll be your vessel."
- "Why would I want you to pee on me?! Alright...just start doing shit to me, we'll see how it goes."
- "You're not gonna fist me or anything, are you? Cause I'm not sure if I'm ready for that..."
The deadpan Duchnovy (who is also an executive producer) is tailor-made for this role: His sour demeanor, unflappable visage and ability to say the most outlandish lines without batting an eye (or lip) is amazing ("It might be nice if I could fellate myself while farting The White Album, but I haven't been able to quite master that yet."). It's no wonder he won a Golden Globe for the role.
My biggest problem with the series hinges on Karen. Hank is constantly flirting with her from the first frame--and in virtually every scene they have together. He hugs her, leans in for a kiss and grabs her ass. Yet for someone supposedly over him and engaged to another man, Karen is surprisingly receptive to it. While she makes weak attempts to shrug him off, her constant smile tells a different story. It's impossible to believe for one second that she actually loves Bill and doesn't want to be with Hank. That makes it hard to buy into the idea that no one else sees it and calls them out (the Emperor has no clothes, people!).
Karen is too smitten, still drowning under Hank's spell. She acts like a giddy school girl far too much, which inhibits any sense of seriousness for the situation. The two act like they're a couple, so when Karen confesses "We need to start acting like we split up already!" in Episode 9, it comes way too late. Bill is a show space-filler ("A dial tone," as Hank says), an underdeveloped ass whose presence holds no actual importance--which apparently excuses Karen's horrid treatment of their relationship. I'm not sure if McElhone decided to play the character this way (she's certainly a fine actress, it's more a matter of her take on the character) or if Karen was written like that. Either way, it's distracting.
But I forgive that major problem because the show keeps me chuckling. While some of the story arcs head into slightly absurd, unbelievable territory, it's all performed with such gusto by the talented cast that it's easy to overlook. The dialogue is razor sharp and unapologetically sexual, and the series is a rollicking, raunchy ride that will make you laugh. And with episodes like the emotionally moving "California Son", it proves it's more than just a one (dirty) trick pony. Depending on how open you are to some blue material, Californication will crack you up. (Tee hee! I said 'crack'!)
The 12 Season 1 episodes are presented on 2 discs; all run about 27:30 except the pilot, which is slightly longer (just under 32 minutes).
1. Pilot (aired 8/13/07) A transplanted author suffers from writer's block and is disappointed that his novel has been turned into a romantic comedy for the big screen. He also learns his ex is engaged and that their 12-year-old daughter is acting on her "emerging sexuality."
2. Hell-A Woman (aired 8/20/07) Jobless Hank is encouraged to channel his rage by blogging for an online magazine; Karen arranges a "play date" with someone Hank's own age during a dinner party at her house.
3. The Whore of Babylon (aired 8/27/07) At a book signing, Hank gets into a scrap with the disgruntled director of the film based on his novel, and later runs into a woman whom he embarrassed and insulted on a blind date; Mia attempts to steal some of Hank's work to use for her high-school creative-writing class.
4. Fear and Loathing at the Fundraiser (aired 9/3/07) Hank escorts Meredith to an environmental fundraiser that is also being attended by Karen, and he winds up defending his ex's honor; Hank interrupts Charlie's romantic interlude with his assistant.
5. LOL (aired 9/10/07) Hank accepts Bill's invitation to speak at Mia's high-school creative-writing class---but there's a catch; at an appearance on a radio show hosted by Henry Rollins, Hank rants about the Internet and its negative impact on the written word.
6. Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (aired 9/17/07) Hank spends a wild evening with a fetching surfer girl (Michelle Lombardo), and later must deal with unwanted attention from Mia. Meanwhile, Becca knocks 'em out in her school's Battle of the Bands; and Marcy almost nabs Charlie in flagrante with his assistant.
7. Girls, Interrupted (aired 9/24/07) Hank deals with the aftermath of sharing a passionate moment with Karen, and is bothered by Becca's negative outlook regarding the concept of happy endings.
8. California Son (aired 10/1/07) Bad news about his father sends Hank on an alcohol-and-drug-fueled bender.
9. Filthy Lucre (aired 10/8/07) A sudden influx of cash from a movie-royalty check sends Hank on a spending spree, but his largesse isn't fully appreciated by all the recipients; Hank writes a manuscript while at his father's funeral in New York; Marcy has surprising news for Charlie.
10. The Devil's Threesome (aired 10/15/07) Hank and Charlie get chummy with a woman they meet at the gym, but not before she gives Hank a thrashing in the ring. Reeling from their respective relationships, Karen and Marcy plan a girls' night out.
11. Turn the Page (aired 10/22/07) Becca surprises Karen with news that she wants to move in with her father; Dani demands that Charlie fast-track Mia's book, which Charlie knows is really Hank's work, and when Hank learns the truth, he is furious and confronts Mia.
12. The Last Waltz (aired 10/29/07) As Karen's wedding to Bill nears, Hank struggles with accepting what appears to be inevitable; Bill informs Mia that he will not allow her book to be published; Hank has a unique solution to dealing with Becca's surprise visitor.
All 12 episodes are presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer. I'm guessing this looks like it did on Showtime, although it's just an average picture that has some grain and noise in many scenes. There's also a huge lack of sharpness in some of the scenes, particularly darker-lit ones in the first few episodes, where detail disappears. Overall it's a soft presentation. Nothing detracts too much from the overall experience, but it's not the strength of the package.
The default option is 2.0 stereo, but you also can choose 5.1 surround and Spanish mono, with optional English captions. This is a dialogue-driven show, and in that regard it's a solid track. The 5.1 option adds minor rear details, like police sirens, a ringing phone or a restaurant crowd. Some isolated scenes had odd fades where the dialogue seemed more separated from the picture, but I only noticed that on a few occasions.
Slim pickings here: Despite not being advertised on the box, there is an audio commentary track on just the pilot episode with David Duchovny, writer/creator Tom Kapinos and director/producer/consultant Stephen Hopkins. It's a pretty sparse track given it's the only one we get; I was hoping for more deep thoughts on the overall show (at one point, Hopkins chides his pals during an extended silence: "Well, you can't just watch it!"). We get a decent chat about just the first episode, where the three talk about various challenges (including casting Mia). Kapinos also acknowledges that the Karen role was seen as thankless by some people). But the guys can provide some laughs: "I think my nipples look especially nice during this scene," notes Duchovny, who adds that he loved learning a new word from Kapinos: "You had me at vaganus!" Kapinos praises Duchovny's willingness to be vulnerable, while Hopkins notes that it was hard to find someone willing to be funny while they're naked: "You don't see a lot of that in American movies or TV anymore."
On Disc 2, you get text biographies for the five lead actors, and a show photo gallery. You can also pop the disc into your computer to enter a Showtime sweepstakes, and get streaming access (via Ebridge technology) to the first two episodes of the second seasons of Dexter and The Tudors. Unfortunately, you get no behind-the-scenes interviews or features. Maybe next season, guys?
Unapologetically dirty, this adult comedy is a riot if you're open to its blue hue. Led by a perfectly cast David Duchovny as Hank--a self-centered man-whore aching to get his life and family in order as he tries to break out of a bad case of writer's block--the show becomes increasing addictive. With a witty script and spirited performances from the cast, Californication eventually proves that it--along with Hank--has a heart beneath all the bawdy humor. Recommended.