David Duchovny just played a miserable screenwriter in Jake Kasdan’s indie feature “The TV Set,” so his role as a miserable, semi-blocked novelist in “Californication” falls into the same, rather peculiar niche. Seeking the same jaunty, jaundiced tone as Showtime’s “Weeds” — while incorporating attention-grabbing helpings of nudity and sex — the premiere is watchable but not fully arousing, often feeling as clenched, dour and indecisive as its brooding protagonist.
The aptly named Hank Moody (Duchovny) ostensibly seems to have it all, bedding beautiful women and having seen his book, with the pretentious title “God Hates Us All,” adapted into a successful movie — starring “Katie and Tom,” no less.
Unfortunately, Hank hated the movie, and he’s finding it difficult putting two sentences together on paper — largely because his beguiling ex Karen (Natascha McElhone) has left him, found a new mate and taken their 12-year-old daughter (Madeleine Martin) with her.
So while Hanks pines for Karen, he finds solace, as she puts it, by “sticking your dick in anything that moves trying to get back at me.” There are certainly worse ways to pass the time, and this form of revenge allows for liberal glimpses of bared breasts (at least a half-dozen in the pilot, which isn’t a bad breast-per-minute ratio), but not much in the way of emotional connection, either with Hank or anybody else.
As written by Tom Kapinos and directed by Stephen Hopkins, “Californication” (a pretty stupid title, really) has trouble delineating where the viewer’s sympathies are supposed to reside. Hank doesn’t need to be likable any more than Tony Soprano did, but watching him stagger through the premiere — drinking too much, rudely insulting a fix-up by his agent (Evan Handler) and bedding women who are all inappropriate in various ways — makes it increasingly difficult to care about his fate.
Perhaps that’s why the best scene — in which Hank confronts a lout who answers his cell phone during a movie — feels like a cathartic throwaway, serving the dual purpose of having the show’s protagonist finally do something that’s easy to applaud.
Duchovny has always possessed underrated comedy chops, as evidenced by his brilliant guest shots on “The Larry Sanders Show.” Still, his detached, distant qualities as an actor — and in particular, as this character — have the effect of sapping the show’s vitality.
As for the already much-discussed sexual content, it’s hardly racy enough to make anyone forget Duchovny’s earlier stint as the lovelorn narrator of Showtime’s “Red Shoe Diaries.” Trying to have it both ways, those sequences appear designed to simultaneously titillate and convey Hank’s emptiness, though seeing how quickly his conquests stack up brings to mind Woody Allen’s line about how even “the wrong kind” of orgasm is still A-OK.
Tonally, the series feels like a logical companion to “Weeds” — a show that’s also star-driven and equally sour. At first blush, anyway, “Californication” isn’t necessarily a bad place to be, but unless the series finds viable avenues to pursue beyond wallowing in Hank’s self-pity, it’ll be Showtime subscribers before long who wind up feeling screwed.