At times “Californication” feels like the series Showtime never got around to canceling. So the fact the raunchy comedy has reached a seventh and final season characterizes it as a survivor, despite its excesses and occasional bad impulses, much like its flawed protagonist. Alas, the swan-song episodes (and the pay service made all 12 available in advance) is emblematic of what’s been fun about the show but also the balancing weight of what’s wrong with it, including a slightly cloying aspect to the central relationship that makes it hard to care about its outcome.
Part of that has to do with a fundamental problem: A good chunk of “Californication’s” allure for the pay-cable audience has been the way self-destructive writer Hank Moody (star and producer David Duchovny) beds an assortment of spectacular women. So Hank’s pining for Karen (Natascha McElhone), the mother of his daughter, invariably has multiple degrees of difficulty built into it, since if Hank isn’t getting laid on a regular basis, the title becomes something of a cheat.
While finding a way to settle the Hank-Karen dynamic – as well as the on-again, off-again romance of Hank’s agent Charlie and his wife Marcy (Evan Handler and Pamela Adlon, respectively) – would seem to be enough business, the show adds a significant degree of difficulty by way of a tryst from Hank’s past (Heather Graham) that yields unintended consequences. It’s fine that the complication isn’t surprising, but as a double whammy, it’s not even remotely interesting.
Moreover, Hank finds himself trying to hold down a steady job as a writer on a police procedural called “Santa Monica Cop,” which creates the opportunity to offer more inside-showbiz gags (including an especially jaundiced version of a writers room), as well as tap “The Sopranos’” Michael Imperioli as the program’s foul-tempered executive producer; and “24’s” Mary Lynn Rajskub as a writer Charlie is eager to sign (among other things).
Die-hard fans might deem otherwise, but “Californication” isn’t one of those series that benefits from binge watching; indeed, racing through the 12 episodes, it was hard not be struck by the repetitive nature of how many times somebody vomits – often, just to maximize the ick factor, directly on somebody else. (There are also a whole lot of prostitutes, and one particularly sensitive pimp.)
Mostly, “Californication’s” semi-indestructible nature is a reminder of how pay cable can still play by its own rules, carrying series with relatively narrow appeal provided that they connect strongly enough with a certain niche. As a bonus, the program’s over-the-top guest arcs have consistently attracted interesting talent, which for Showtime has no doubt felt like a promotional boon.
So for those viewers who have been there from the beginning, Showtime and the creative team have the luxury of bringing Hank’s story all the way through to a conclusion. (Showtime exec David Nevins credited the series for its “unique blend of lyricism and excess,” which is interesting, if perhaps a trifle too generous.)
OK, so the climax feels a trifle rushed and clumsy — particularly given some of the time squandered getting there — and probably comes about three seasons too late. If “Californication” has demonstrated anything over the course of its run, it’s the value of foreplay.