I wax hairy tacos, maybe I bleach an asshole or two...that's my thing. One wrong move, you end up the ass licker.
Words to live by."
Hank: "I know...I smell like [female genitalia word #1]. I'm sorry, Karen...I'm very sorry. That was an honest mistake!"
Still with me? Don't worry...after a while, you'll just become desensitized to it all. But sadly for the series, there isn't much left after all the dirty talk is done. I'm not exactly sure what happened since I reviewed the first season a year ago (although even then, I remember thinking that my 3.5-star rating was perhaps a tad generous). Maybe I'm more mature now? Nah, that can't be it...I'm probably just slightly more critical and not as easily amused. Whatever the case, the honeymoon is over--I just didn't have as much fun during the sophomore campaign of this Showtime hit, which appropriately begins and ends to the tune of "California Dreamin'".
It doesn't help that not much seems to actually happen this season--the 12 episodes whiz by without much character or story development, even less than last season (which in itself was stretched). I was so turned off by the silly conclusion to Season 1, I thought for sure it would turn out to be a dream sequence, but I was wrong (Karen's former fiancé Bill is now history). Here's the crux of Season 2: writer/sex addict Hank Moody (David Duchovny)--still moaning about being stuck in California--continues to fall in and out of a relationship with Karen (Natascha McElhone). She also wouldn't mind moving back to New York with their stone-faced daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin), a true "child of the damned".
While in jail for being an ass, Hank meets famed record producer Lew Ashby (Callum Keith Rennie), who hires Hank to write his biography--leading him to find Lew's ex Janie (Madchen Amick) in search of substance. Hank's life is also complicated by the presence of Season 1 conquest Sonja (Paula Marshall), along with a few other notches on his bedpost. Meanwhile, Hank's agent Charlie (Evan Handler) falls for Daisy (Carla Gallo)--a porn starlet with a heart of gold!--while wife Marcy (Pamela Adlon) snorts cocaine. Seeing very limited (and virtually negligible) screen time this season are Bill's daughter Mia (Madeline Zima), the Lolita who slept with Hank and stole his novel (a revelation Karen has yet to make, a storyline I'm sure that will rear its ugly head in the future), and Charlie's assistant-turned-agent Dani (Rachel Miner)--who gets Charlie fired this for his chronic masturbation problem.
The biggest battle Californication faces is balancing its ribald nature with some form of sincerity...it can't. The show is all about trying to make you gasp and giggle with juvenile humor, and Season 2 doesn't have any substantive storylines--it's just repeated patterns of behavior (sex, drugs, rock and roll) strung together with wafer-thin plot developments. The situations are dictated by the show's prurient agenda, with logic, common sense and decency thrown out the window. An absurd dinner party bringing together a bunch of self-absorbed misfits in Episode 4 is the prime example: No one behaves or reacts in a believable way, further magnifying one of the show's huge weaknesses--you just don't care about any of these people. They're all caricatures vying for your attention by shouting louder than each other, a bunch of kids behaving badly.
That would be fine if the show was witty enough to back up the dirty humor, but it isn't. While watching Season 2, I kept scribbling the same comment in my notes: "Just watch porn..." The recurring porn starlet storyline (Vaginatown, anyone?) is another example of the show stretching a thin premise too wide, going for too easy jokes that magnify the show's (and characters') shallowness:
Charlie: "Daisy, I can't thank you enough for filling in like this."
Really?! Is this the best you've got? Hmm, let's sample another naughty nugget and find out:
Dani: "Maybe it's time to think about doing something different with your skill set...what about producing?"
Sigh...if you're going to shun character development and go for vulgarity, at least make it original (Need more evidence? We also get a zinger advising Hank to be mindful of his soap while in prison, and a "carpet matching the drapes" quip). At least the jokesters can make you laugh--I can't say the same for Karen, perhaps the show's most infuriating character. She pretends to be turned off by all of Hank's shenanigans, but it's a façade--deep down she's amused (almost encouraging) of his behavior, making her the least likable character (boys will be boys, right Karen?). The couple's conflict with the police at the end of Episode 1--and Karen's repeated attempts to "teach Hank a lesson"--are prime examples of her co-dependent nature, and make her come across like the most phony character.
The relationships here aren't anchored in reality, and I have a hard time buying that most of these people actually care about each other. The childish behavior of the arrested-development adults (including some really bad parenting) further illustrates the show's intent: To grab your attention with flesh and flash. Look! Sheri Moon Zombie says "Great lookin' cock!"! And there's Justine Bateman! She doesn't shave her body hair and is on her period! And isn't that Pete Wentz?! Oooh, and what about the nympho celebrity chef who screams "Make me your bitch! Fuck me like I'm Al-Qaeda!" How risqué!
Virtually everyone here (save for Becca and Janie) is selfish to some degree, and after a while it gets exhausting--at what point does Californication want us to take it seriously? I almost wish the show shunned any pretense at drama and went full force with its dark and dirty side (something It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia does beautifully). You'll have zero rooting interest in Hank and Karen or Charlie and Marcie--they argue, they shout, they snort, they sex. Like Marcie (aka Cokey Smurf), it all becomes loud and obnoxious.
It's impossible to accept Californication as anything but filthy fun, which means its few attempts at honest emotion (like Becca's plea to daddy in Episode 7) fall flat. The show tries to have it both ways, but it's mostly too little, too late as it drowns in its own excess. There are only so many meaningless hookups and coke snorts (virtually all of it played for laughs) that you can take before you write off the show as a cartoon (and Duchovny's real-life battle with addiction makes much of the material even harder to laugh at).
Even then, it's not fresh enough to maintain your interest--it's just average. Californication relies a lot on attitude and swagger, with "cute" catchphrases peppering the script. It's like an R-rated Seinfeld, but with "close talker", "anti-dentite", "man hands" and "sponge worthy" replaced with "mouth rape", "accidental oralist", "birth orgasm" and "stunt cock"--jokes that are repeated far too much, wasting valuable script space with recycled material (the references to Hank's balls after a vasectomy are one of many overkill examples). It also revels in the "returning guest character" too much, like the mere appearance of a Season 1 conquest is enough to entertain us (I love Judy Greer, but not here).
All is not lost, and the season's final third is stronger than the rest--but the bright spots are fleeting. The season wastes most of a great opportunity--exploring the odd friendship between Hank and Ashby--but finally offers some sweet moments toward the end of the season, while Episode 9 (my favorite) takes a more sincere look at some of the couplings. Episode 10, which flashes back to a crucial period in Hank and Karen's life, aims for depth but is ultimately a little too repetitive, while Becca's relationship with new boyfriend Damien (Ezra Miller) is empty. And the season ender feels like a tacked-on prelude for Season 3 (Episode 11 would have been far more effective as the finale). I also wish we got to see more of Amick, whose Janie is underused after a hint of something special.
And yes, some of the lowbrow humor works--I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a few chuckles along the way. But there's just so much of it that it loses most of its impact. The show can certainly be enjoyable--if you're in the right frame of mind, it's probably hysterical. I am not a regular Entourage watcher, but have seen previous episodes--some of them made me laugh, but most of them made me angry and annoyed (I could say the same of Sex and the City). Californication is more concerned with the easy laughs than well-earned respect and meaningful characters, something I just couldn't overlook this time. Regardless of what tone a show runs with, all you can hope for is that it matures--and Hank and company still have a lot of growing up to do.
1. Slip of the Tongue (aired 9/28/08) Hank and Karen decide to pack up and head to New York. As part of the reconciliation, Hank undergoes a vasectomy. Later, after a party at the home of record producer Lew Ashby, Hank runs into trouble.
5. Vaginatown (aired 10/26/08) After getting dumped by Karen, Hank moves in to Ashby's mansion. Ashby tries to distract Hank form the heartbreak with a celebrity chef. Meanwhile, Charlie takes on a new client, who's eager to land the lead in an ambitious new porn film.
9. La Ronde (aired 11/23/08) Hank meets Janie for a date, while Karen goes on an impromptu date (of sorts) with Ashby.
Pamela Adlon takes center stage in the other two offerings, where she channels Lisa Lampanelli: an audio commentary on Episode 6 ("Coke Dick & The First Kick"), an odd listen full of silence (lots of silence!), outbursts ("I hate that painting!"/"I love that house!"), laughing, obvious observations ("That was his face feeling sick!", random facts (fake cocaine is powered sugar and powdered milk) and filth ("She had a tiny Band-Aid on her vajonesia!"/"Look at my tits!"). Adlon has a charm, but you're probably more likely to be annoyed than entertained (enough of the "Look at my nails!" and "My hair looks good!"). She should have been paired with someone else for the track--on her own, it just doesn't work. Her parting words: "Yea! Bye! I love you! Thank you for listening to my diarrhea! Have fun! Go jerk off!"
Adlon returns in Marcie's Waxing Salon (2:53), another oddity where the actress takes a tour of Pink Cheeks Salon (which is her Hot Lips salon in the show) with expert waxer Cindy: "This girl is a porn star and she's working tomorrow...we have to make sure that we do it fast and quick cause she wants a tighty whitie, not a pinky inky. So we're gonna do in the butt." Cue blurred footage of the two women waxing a variety of clientele (your guess is as good as mine). Cast bios, a photo gallery, trailers and free episodes of other Showtime shows (available via your PC) are also included. Sadly, no gag reel to be found.
Also, I'd avoid reading the episode summaries on the menu--they reveal far too much (the printed episode guide in the disc sleeve is slightly less spoilertastic).