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by Ben Travers
June 30, 2014 10:39 AM
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Review: 'Californication' Can't Live Up to Its Own Prestige in an Anti-Climactic Series Finale

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

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" Patrick Wymore/Showtime

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" NBC

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


5 Comments

  • bill | July 1, 2014 3:48 PMReply

    Season 1 was really great. Season 2 was very good, because with Lew Ashby they presented a nice new interesting character and a good arc. Season 3 was still entertaining with some fresh setting. But from then on the show lost it's potential. It was all only about old stuff and most of the new characters were boring and uninspired. Samurai Apocalypse was a boring character, Atticus Fetch was a boring character, both absolutely cliche types with no personality. And Hank's son in the last season seemed fitted and unnatural.

    Maybe they should have killed Karen, because that would have been the only way to wipe her out of Hank's life and would have given him a chance to go on with his own life. I hoped for that moment when she had that accident, but they kept her alive and it was the same old story like the seasons before.

    Sadly an unsatisfying ending (and final season at all) for a good show with a very good start. It is sad that this is the end, but maybe it is more sad that the end wasn't earlier.

    PS: Just the Runkle-moments were great all the time, loved them in total. And Eddy Nero was a nice figure.

  • Julia | July 1, 2014 11:31 AMReply

    I thought the ending was perfect. I think it was a great series start to finish. I loved the four main characters and will miss them. The friendship between Hank and Runkle was my favorite relationship of any on television.

  • Ty | July 1, 2014 10:49 AMReply

    TV finales can't win the public sentiment battle. Lost makes a name for itself on ambiguity and mystery, its finale lives up to the show, people hate it. Breaking bad, a show about a a guy who always leaves loose ends that come back to bite him, ends with everything tied up in a neat little bow. people love it. Dexter spends a decade chronicling the main characters struggle to be, at least to appear to be, a normal person, but who can't ever seem to get away from his dark side. ends with him finally realizing he is toxic and exiling himself, people hate it. no matter what californication (or any show) did, people would have bitched about it and will talk about how terrible it is. the simple reality is, people just hate when their favorite shows end and no ending will ever match the level of expectation they felt because they loved it.

  • Trope | July 3, 2014 1:45 AM

    I get what you are saying, and there is merit there, but I disagree that we can write off bad endings as simply a matter of perspective mixed with a dash of "people hate when shows end". I personally believe a show's journey is only as beautiful as its ending, and vice versa. Great endings have occurred, and they are worth appreciating, too. I know people who didn't like the Breaking Bad ending. I liked it, but I can see why other's didn't. I think part of the problem is a lot of our television has no clear ending, or rather, the endings the creators envision are still too vague during the show's run to really coalesce into anything more than what they become. So many of these endings have strong concepts and motifs, but it seems the execution holds them back.

  • the glue | July 2, 2014 12:05 AM

    @TY -- that is actually very astute.

    On the matter at hand -- I also thought the show faded in the past few years but I enjoyed the ending. Other than Hank dying (which DD apparently wanted) I thought it was a nice wrap to the show. And I will definitely miss my Runkle.