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Review: 'Californication' Can't Live Up to Its Own Prestige in an Anti-Climactic Series Finale

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire June 30, 2014 at 10:39AM

It started out hot and heavy, but David Duchovny's Golden Globe-winning dramedy petered to an unsatisfying finale Sunday night.
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Natasha McElhone and David Duchovny in "Californication" on Showtime
Patrick Wymore/Showtime Natasha McElhone and David Duchovny in "Californication"

Believe it or not, David Duchovny's anti-ode to sex in LA has been on Showtime for seven years. Back in 2007, it broke onto the scene using the pay cable network's most attractive offerings: Lots of sex, nudity, swearing, drinking, and general debauchery. The combination of racy material presented in a harmless comedic fashion resulted in multiple Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, as well as a few wins (Duchovny took home his second Globe after winning for "The X-Files" in 1997). "Californication" also took home two Emmys for cinematography in back-to-back years for two separate DP's (Peter Levy and Michael Weaver).

All of these wins, though, came during the show's first two seasons. Duchovny kept feeling the love from Goldy until 2012 (with an off year in 2011), but the show couldn't muster the magic it crafted during its nearly perfect initial season. Creator Tom Kapinos had created an addictive, joyful, and uniquely framed piece of romanticism for 12 episodes. Hank, our lead, wasn't having sex without purpose: it was a learning experience pushing him from one jaunt to the next. For that first season, his flings influenced his family life and vice versa. It's just too bad it couldn't last. 

READ MORE: 6 TV Shows That Should Have Ended After Their First Season

In its inception, "Californication" was a complex relationship story framed under the guise of simplicity. Hank Moody, a respected novelist, had his professional and personal life thrown into turmoil by Hollywood's generic adaptation of his dark novel: The author's version of "God Hates Us All" was morphed into a Tom & Kate conventional rom-com called "A Crazy Little Thing Called Love" (an admittedly odd choice considering Cruise would never make that film). As a result, Moody became exactly that -- emotionally unreliable, hiding his inner pain with brash humor and an attitude explicitly designed to pick fights (his destruction of a cell phone used by an inconsiderate moviegoer remains a personal highlight, for its cathartic joy alone). 

David Duchovny and Natasha McElhone in "Californication" on Showtime
Patrick Wymore/Showtime David Duchovny and Natasha McElhone in "Californication"

Was it all over a movie? No, of course not. Hank was in mourning over the loss of Karen (Natasha McElhone), his "baby mama" who he considered -- and still considers -- the one true love of his life, who at the beginning of the series, had left him after too many battles and was set to marry Bill.

Season 1 illustrated how Hank took his personal frustrations and unleashed them on a culture unwilling to engage in real romance, which instead turned it into an easily digestible set of correct and incorrect choices. Kapinos perfectly established the war for Hank's soul: The light (Karen), the dark (Los Angeles), and the murky in between (Hank's many lovers). Including his daughter, a woman young enough to be influenced by her father's actions but old enough to replicate them without too much unease, was a stroke of genius. The show could have been called "Dr. Hank and His Women" for all the wisdom they were oh so willing to bestow upon our hero.

But then Kapinos put a bow on it -- Season 1 wrapped with Hank learning his lesson, growing up and winning back the woman of his dreams. It wasn't easy. It wasn't forced. It took just enough time to make the audience feel he earned it and not too much to make anyone feel cheated. Hank met, spoke with, spent time with, and, yes, slept with many women in the first season -- but it all felt warranted. Even his accidental affair with Bill's underage daughter brought out growth in Hank and drama for those of us watching him (and proved to be the only unanswered narrative strand heading into Season 2).

The following seasons saw a deconstruction and reconstruction of the same decision, over and over until there was simply nothing left to say. That's where we ended up during Sunday night's finale, as Hank came to an obvious and forced realization to be there for his daughter, proclaim his love for Karen, and get the hell out of LA. It's not that these things shouldn't have happened -- in fact, it would've felt wrong if any of them had been left out. It's that we knew they were coming and Kapinos/Duchovny/et al couldn't find a way to make them more meaningful.

Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer in "Friends" on NBC
NBC Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer in "Friends"

Plenty of TV shows feature finales with expected outcomes being realized -- "Friends," the classic NBC sitcom which found Ross and Rachel finally choosing to be together forever, is perhaps the perfect model to follow. If the "Will they?/Won't they?" drama had come to an unhappy close, it would have ruined a program dedicated to making its audience feel good. Optimism flourished, and it would have been wrong for the creators to strip its devoted audience of that feeling in the show's waning moments.

Yet they spiced it up -- Rachel and Ross didn't merely walk up to each other and say "okay." There wasn't a simple declaration of love. After 10 years of back and forth, it took a little magic and a call to action for the romantically reticent couple to finally pull the trigger. (There was even a cliched airport chase, but creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman threw in a welcome twist to up the intensity.)

No such twist occurred for Hank and Karen. What worked so well 10 years ago was abandoned last night in favor of a rather stunted, unmemorable speech from a writer who's given them often (and given better ones to boot). Karen's reaction said it all. She was touched, but not overwhelmed. Pleased, but not swept off her feet. It was just enough for her to say "okay," but there's no way she would have fought her way off the plane to get to Hank.

What makes the complacent ending sting even more is knowing that "Californication" was at one point a more complex program than "Friends," with a similar optimistic bent but darker, more human undertones and obviously a more inventive presentation. It's not an apples to apples comparison. "Friends" never ventured past its audience's comfort zone, while "Californication" demanded you accept a certain liberal lifestyle to appreciate its development. It wasn't beyond reason to expect Kapinos & Co. would pull out a finale for the ages, or at least a mature, noteworthy punctuation to a character whose journey deserved at least that. 

No such luck. Since its rookie year, Duchovny's most prominent program of the aughts steadily declined into meaningless sex. It's become a one-night stand to be embarrassed by, rather than proud and expectant. Perhaps it was silly to hope for more from a show that's grown accustomed to getting away with much less, but until the series finale, I still believed "Californication" could provide more than purely physical satisfaction. While I'd give Season 1 an "A" grade, the series putters out with a...

Grade: C


This article is related to: Californication, David Duchovny, David Duchovny, Showtime, Television, Television Review






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