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Californication

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Join David Duchovny for an odyssey of self-loathing, despair, bitterness, and projectile vomit in Showtime’s ”new comedy” (huh, comedy?) Californication. Here, Los Angeles is a grotesque nihilopolis and Duchovny’s writer Hank Moody is its pissy chronicler, indulging in cocktails and revenge sex and anonymous sex and angry sex and massive doses of wallowy self-pity: After seeing his brainy best-seller turned into a mindless date movie, the guy can’t get it up, literarily speaking. He’s losing his longtime partner (Solaris‘ Natascha McElhone) and precocious 12-year-old daughter (The Pillowman‘s Madeleine Martin) to a safe, boring rich guy — whose teenage daughter he slept with, unknowingly.

Hank’s a man in crisis, and the crisis is distinctly Duchovnyesque: sarcastic, understated, and buzzing with sly humor. This character, in fact, probably wouldn’t work without Duchovny, so oft-infantile Hank is. As with his X-Files persona, the actor brings just enough playfulness, and a goodly amount of sorrow, to make Hank palatable. And bless McElhone’s Karen, because if a woman that sensible and earthy still sort of loves the guy, it’s a pretty solid voucher. She banters with Hank, brushes him off, rails against him — and it’s in those scenes that Hank becomes a real person, engaged in a genuine dissolution of love.

Unfortunately, all the sex in Californication overshadows the heart of the show. This is rarely frothy sex-romp stuff; this is dark. Sometimes poignant (anyone who saw Nicole Holofcener’s L.A. drama Lovely and Amazing will notice echoes), but mostly dark. And that’d be fine, if it gave real insight into Hank. Who is this guy? He calls one lover a ”cadaverous lay,” but then becomes gentle and sad when another conquest-to-be debates plastic surgery. He’s kind to a woman who stands naked before him and demands to know her faults; but in another scene he verbally dismantles a blind date, stripping her down to a pitiful, pointless figure for sport. Certainly, it’s brave to depict a serious jackass, and sure, we’re all shades of gray, and yes, we’re all entitled to moments of pure aggression toward the opposite sex. But Californication is so busy bopping and bumping and chest-thumping it doesn’t go past these provocative glimpses. Several scenes of Hank’s blasé cruelty toward women seem intended to be funny: They cross the line just like HBO’s Entourage has of late, where women aren’t in on the joke anymore, but the butt of it. At one point, Hank wearily blogs: ”Why is L.A. so bent on destroying its female population?” But he seems equally bent on that mission. Californication is flirting with incredibly interesting questions about the state of male-female relations — here’s hoping it actually gets there.B