My kids have long tired of me beginning a sentence with "When I was growing up…"

Typically that sentence ends with "…there was no internet," or "…the only telephones we had were in the house," or "…there were only three channels on television, not counting PBS."
I feel like I should add another ending to that sentence, one which goes something like "…long form storytelling on television was rare, you could jump into any show at any moment."
Of course there were long running shows which had enormous popularity. I never watched Dallas, for example, but when I was in grade school I remember hearing the answer to the question "Who shot J.R.?" from an announcer at a college hockey game I was attending with my parents. I didn’t care, but the crowd gasped when they found out.
The shows I loved growing up – comedies mainly – told stories you could jump into at any time. Characters sometimes changed – as they did in MASH and Cheers. But BJ replaced Trapper and Woody replaced Coach only in mannerisms and style, not in purpose. Today you can watch either of those shows in random order without ever feeling disoriented.
Soap operas, on the other hand, are infinitely long form dramas that require an investment of time to understand the characters and their history. When you jump in you do feel disoriented and it takes effort to make that feeling go away.
Today, a hybrid form dominates television. Beginning with The Sopranos and continuing today with shows like Game of Thrones and Californication, showrunners have carved out a space in between an infinite soap opera story and one in which the characters make only short emotional journeys that are not transformational.
This is perhaps why I’m more selective with my television choices now. If I need to invest myself in a character or a story I want to know it’s a story worth the investment. At first, and for this reason, I didn’t watch Californication.
David Duchovny changed my mind. I saw him in the underrated The Joneses and decided to give this show a chance. At first, I was glad I did.
The very first images of the pilot episode of Californication show Hank Moody, our aptly named protagonist, going into a church and flicking a lit cigarette into a basin of holy water. He then proceeds to talk to God, and is answered by a Nun who happens to walk in on him. "I’m having a crisis of faith," he tells her, after which she suggests not prayer but a sexual act.
That this scene turns out to be a dream is irrelevant, in this moment Californication set what should have been the tone for the rest of the series. It was going to be funny, irreverent, and address big issues like faith. This opening is made more apropos by the fact that Moody is a writer who’s latest work is titled "God Hates Us All." Watching the pilot episode, I got the sense that this would portend great things for these characters and this show. The series finale last night proved that the show, at some point, had lost it’s way.
I’m always wary of series finale critics. Most people hated the Seinfeld finale, but I thought it fit perfectly within the universe of a show populated with completely narcissistic characters. The finale of The Sopranos was equally satisfying for me. On the other hand I’ve yet to see the final season of Dexter and can’t imagine anything that would persuade me to watch it. That series went one season too long.
So did Californication. The "crisis of faith" Moody complains about in that opening scene manifests itself during season six in a female love interest named, appropriately, Faith. In one beautifully written scene – while Moody is traveling with Faith – he describes his love for Karen, the mother of his daughter, saying "Everything that I write is either for her or about her. So I’m with her, even when I’m not."
In another episode during this season, Moody accompanies Faith as she visits her parents and discovers that her mother is quite fundamentalist in her religious views. Faith understands his love for Karen, but loves him anyway and Hank is faced with a choice.
Apart from the premier, this is as close as the series comes to tackling big issues. It’s comedy is based on shock – often resorting to farcical but well choreographed scenes involving bodily fluids violently ejected from every conceivable orifice – and of course sex. True to the show’s name, Moody works his way through dozens of women leading the viewer to wonder whether there exists, in the entirety of Southern California, a single woman who will not sleep with him.
The minor characters are inconsequential. Charlie and Marcie, best friends to Hank and Karen, spend the seventh season contemplating an "indecent proposal." If that sounds like the plot of a movie that’s because it is, right down to the amount offered for sexual gratification.
Show creator Tom Kapinos took a shot at greatness and ended up with flashes of brilliance that turned out just ok. Duchovny impresses throughout, playing a character perhaps too close to his own personality but he’s the reason I kept watching. What we’re left with is perhaps the ultimate male fantasy: meaningless sex with hundreds of beautiful women that is consequential only in that it delays, but does not prevent, a happy reunion with the mother of his daughter. If this sounds misogynistic that may be because it is, but we’re supposed to give Hank a pass because, we’re told several times, he "loves women."
Much of the plot is driven not by Hank, the main character, but by the women in his life. All of them want something from him – usually sex – and he rarely says no. This is also meant to be a point of sympathy for Hank – after all it’s not his fault that two different women come over to his house wanting to have sex with him the morning after he’s had a wild drug-fueled night with three strippers who are still in his bed (Rick Springfield – yes, that Rick Springfield – makes a hilarious appearance in this episode).
Perhaps I’m asking too much of a half-hour comedy on paid cable. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Californication’s predecessors and contemporaries. And perhaps criticizing a show that has persuaded me to watch all 84 episodes is a little ironic. But in the end I wanted more.
I wanted them to live up to the promise of the first episode, and indeed the whole first season. I wanted to see Hank resolve his crisis of faith. And I wanted to see him resolve it in a way that distanced himself and his family from the rest of the craziness and sex and drugs that is Southern California as it’s portrayed on the screen. I didn’t get that.
What I got instead was Hank refusing sex from a random stranger for perhaps the first time. Hank setting up the mother (alleged mother, they never definitively say whether Hank is the father) of his son with another guy. Then Hank joins Karen on the plane to his daughter’s wedding.
Great. Hank has chosen Karen before – several times in fact. And Karen once ran out on her wedding to be with Hank. They’re destined to be together. Got it. What makes us think this one will stick?
Nothing. And that’s the point. Hank never resolved his crisis of faith – or more precisely he did so during the sixth season but decided to come back for one more.
So maybe I don’t have to tell my kids that you can’t just jump into a show at any point anymore. After all, from start to finish, Hank Moody didn’t make that long of a journey. But my kids will have to wait to grow up a little more to watch it, especially that episode with Rick Springfield.
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