I don’t think 2008 was a very good year for pop culture.
The Hollywood writers’ strike seemed to have lingering effects, delaying the return of some of my favorite TV shows past the point of anticipation all the way to indifference. Probably can’t blame the strike, but most of the year for movies was also generally a disaster, with the summer slate being a particular disappointment (I was even let down by The Dark Knight).
It was miss after miss on the reading front for me as well, with several much-hyped books, like Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and O’Neill’s Netherland leaving me cold and unsatisfied. And our most exalted Prophet has admitted that it wasn’t a particularly great year for new music, either.
Maybe it had something to do with the election, but late in the year I felt a renewed sense of hope and optimism that things would turn around in pop land. 30 Rock, The Office and House returned in fine form to the small screen (Even Heroes got better). At the cinema, The Wrestler provided quality entertainment, and most of the late-season Oscar contenders all seem worthy of their accolades. My brother has supplied me with a robust stack of some fine new music, including The Fleet Foxes’ excellent disc.
And most excitingly, I rekindled my love with Californication during the barren TV holiday season, watching all 12 episodes of the Showtime program’s second season in rapid-fire succession (thank you, on-demand technology). The show, which stars David Duchovny as a frustrated novelist seeking inspiration in a soulless and sex-obsessed Hollywood, kicks off 2009 as the first My One Favorite Thing of the week.
Why do I love Californication so much? Well, first, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. The writing is at times too literate. Duchovny’s character, Hank Moody, always spouts just the perfect line when he’s trying to seduce a woman, or when he’s verbally sparring with a rival. They’re great lines and always make me laugh, but they also make Moody appear too smooth and somewhat contradict his otherwise very fallible human characteristics.
Even worse, some of Californication’s most profound wisdom is uttered by the show’s children – such as Moody’s a-bit-too-precious young daughter, Rebecca – which strains the bounds of credulity (in a way that i think also detracted from the realism in the movie Juno).
Also, the show’s plot developments usually manage to be at once both highly implausible and totally predictable.
Yet these flaws are really just minor complaints. Californication boasts some of the most memorable characters and situations on TV today, with some of the best, cleverest discussions about sex, and relationships, and art, and parenting, and a hundred other interesting topics, all the while navigating that fine line between comedy and pathos better than any series I can remember watching.
The show is anchored by Duchovny, in a convincing portrayal of a character who is at his core a good-hearted, moral family man, but who just can’t escape his demons and completely grow up. It appears that given what we now know about the actor in real life (i.e. his sex addiction), Duchovny was born to play Hank Moody. Even if there’s not a lot of acting going on there, I’m still very impressed (Duchovny has a surprisingly impeccable comedic timing).
The other main asset of the show is the mother of Moody’s child, Karen Van der Beek. The terrific and stunning Natascha McElhone plays the Baby Mama as the perfect straight foil to Moody. She is brilliant, responsible, and wise, but she’s not perfect either (her affair was the initial reason the two broke up) and more often than not empathizes with Moody’s restlessness and forgives his various transgressions. She is also clearly the love of Moody’s life (and vice versa), and you can’t help but root for the two to live happily ever after, even though you know the show will not – cannot - allow that to happen.
Aside from their daughter, the two main characters are surrounded by some of the most shallow, immature, pathetic creatures, including Moody’s best friend Charlie Runkel, a Hollywood agent and sexual pervert who loses his job after being taped repeatedly masturbating at his office desk; and Mia Lewis, the manipulative teenage daughter of Karen’s fiancee from Season One, who after having an affair with Moody ends up stealing his novel and selling it as her own.
Season Two introduced several new characters in that same mold, with the highlights being the wildman record producer (and Moody’s Doppelganger) Lew Ashby and the self-help guru/fraud Julian.
Yet despite their eccentric, juvenile behavior, almost all of the recurring characters manage to retain a modicum of dignity, earning important empathy points from the viewing audience.
Even though I was not a fan of the way the second season ended – another one of those frustrating, predictable plot developments – it did lend itself nicely to transition in a third season, which Showtime has announced will be on its way later this year.
I can’t wait.