After a shaky start, “Californication” became highly watchable in its first season — right up until its preposterous, hackneyed ending. Yet having deviated from its original premise into uncharted territory, wonder of wonders, year two is actually more compelling and fun, morphing from the twin themes of bachelorhood and longing into tackling the challenges of monogamy — especially when one partner’s lurid past keeps colliding with the present. Throw in a life-imitates-art, made-for-the-tabloids kerfuffle surrounding star-producer David Duchovny, and Showtime could be the proud home of an unexpectedly buzz-worthy comedy.
In a sense, “Californication” has become Showtime’s seamier answer to “Entourage,” inasmuch as it presents an exaggerated version of L.A. as a desert oasis of rampant drugs and earthly perversions — here viewed from the outskirts of showbiz, through the cynical lens of writer Hank Moody (Duchovny).
Hank spent season one pining for his ex-girlfriend Karen (Natascha McElhone), with whom he had a young daughter (Madeleine Martin). And because it’s Showtime, Hank found solace by engaging in gratuitous, semi-explicit sex with as many remarkably willing women as possible, among them the teenage daughter (Madeline Zima) of Karen’s intended husband. (If you missed season one and are looking for DVD homework, quit reading here.)
Season two picks up with Hank and Karen reunited, but their “The Graduate”-like moment hasn’t produced a happy ending for them, either. Instead, Hank literally keeps bumping into former conquests, when he isn’t being tested in his newfound commitment to fidelity by a legendary rock producer (“Battlestar Galactica’s” Callum Keith Rennie, as a sleazy cross between Don Simpson and Phil Spector).
The supporting characters, meanwhile, have grown even more drug-addled and wild, including Hank’s agent Charlie (Evan Handler), who has a thing for bondage; and his wife Marcy (Pamela Adlon), who’s up for pretty much anything once she’s snorted enough coke.
Series creator Tom Kapinos at times feels like he’s working too hard at being hip and shocking, from having Hank accidentally wind up servicing another woman at a party to throwing out jargon like “ankling” and “ten-percenter,” which frankly appears aimed at Variety‘s readership and practically no one else.
Nevertheless, there’s a crude, unapologetic energy to “Californication” that embraces its sordid world with utter conviction — as well as the fact that despite his many good intentions, its central character can be a colossal prick. And however crassly, Duchovny’s announcement about his own sexual-addiction problems should only help bring additional attention to a concept that originally sounded like a borrowed title in search of a series.
Granted, the L.A. of “Californication” might not be one that many people actually live in, but as stereotyped fantasylands go, it’s become a pretty good place to visit.