Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guilty Pleasure: Californication

I've spent the last few days watching every episode of a show that I can only characterize as a guilty pleasure.

It's called Californication, and it's essentially an R-rated soap opera that tells the story of an irresponsible but handsome writer who has moved from New York to Los Angeles to oversee the movie adaptation of his magnum opus, only to have the circumstances of his life conspire to keep him in Southern California.

Maybe there's a certain amount of wish-fulfillment in my strange attraction to this show. I'm willing to admit that. Like all guilty pleasures, this show satisfies impulses that can't be defended aesthetically.

Each half-hour episode features sit-com-style setups and raunchy dialog, and, as far as I can tell, the show has some contractual obligation to have at least one shot of nudity in every iteration.

But, believe it or not, I don't watch the show for the nudity. Frankly, there are easier ways to get gratuitous viewings of flesh. No, I watch the show because I genuinely sympathize with the main character, played by David Duchovny.

(A rare moment of family togetherness in Californication.)

Duchovny's Hank Moody, a successful novelist who seems to do precious little writing, is a kind of knight-errant, hobbled by his impulses and immaturity. He tries to do right by his daughter and her mother, but his hormones keep getting in the way. (He is impossibly successful as a sexual wayfarer.) He also holds some unexamined opinions about life and art that seem either willfully naive or nobly savage.

And the surrounding cast is stellar. From the luminous Natascha McElhone to the hilarious Evan Handler to the precociously compelling Madeleine Martin, Californication has managed to build a kind of ad-hoc family of characters whom I've come to care about, even as I recognize their obvious (sometimes rather stereotypical) failings as people.

Also, the show's comedic sense isn't mean-spirited. It's inclusive, meaning that even minor caricatures tend to get a chance to at least flash a glimpse of full-fledgedness. Someone who gets satirically skewered one second also gets a line or two of emotional and/or philosophical depth in the next. Case in point: Kathleen Turner's run as a super-libidinous, middle-aged agent who nevertheless gets to dispense some wisdom to Hank when he engages in fisticuffs at her house party and who also makes strange amends to Evan Handler's character after she deals a body-blow to his career.

Having said all of this, I still contend that the show has none of what the average person would call "redeeming value." It really doesn't. But it is, at least for me, entertaining.

And which of us doesn't have our guilty pleasures? I think it's part of what makes us who we are.

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