Like a two-hour movie stretched out to fill a six-hour television season, the fourth season of Californication proves there can indeed be too much of a good thing. Perhaps because it’s so much fun to watch bad-boy novelist Hank Moody (David Duchovny) self-destruct his farcically out-of-control relationships with women, series creator Tom Kapinos forgets to change positions, and spends much of the fourth season spinning (roughly) in place. The show is also unevenly comedic, with Hank remaining seemingly unfazed by a near-death experience, the sight of a corpse hanging from a bathroom hook due to autoerotic asphyxiation gone wrong, and charges of statutory rape looming over his head. He barely blinks when his on-again-off-again wife, Karen (Natascha McElhone), points out that “you stuck your dick in a girl that’s the same age as your daughter is now.”
If you’re able to get past the inconsistencies of tone, the first eight episodes of the season are still a lot of black-and-blue fun, which is to say they’re darkly humorous, prolifically sexual, and purely entertaining. Duchovny’s unremitting asshole makes for a guilty pleasure, and it’s easy to see why Kapinos indulges Hank instead of attending to the overall plot. In that sense, Californication, not Entourage, is the true male version of Sex and the City; Hank’s agent/best friend, Charlie (Evan Handler), helps make this season’s episodes an unfettered depiction of Men Behaving Badly in a world with no consequences. And in the postmodern fashion that is so chic these days, there’s a subplot involving an attempt by a Hollywood producer to make a film version of Hank’s sex scandal, a task which inevitably leads to Hank sleeping with both the lead actress and her mother, and spending some quality time with the insane actor slated to play him (Rob Lowe, channeling a coked-up Brad Pitt): “To hard cocks and handsome men. Now, excuse me, I see a woman I defecated on in Palm Springs once.”
Try as he might, though, Kapinos rarely gives his guest stars much to do, other than to be conquests and foils for Hank. At least Carla Gugino, who plays Hank’s lawyer, is a good match—a take-no-shit woman who advises him to shower by pointing out: “You smell like you just got out of a fisting contest.” On the other hand, Madeline Zima, as Mia, the young girl Hank slept with, is made to play suicidal one episode and cheery the next. And though the show hints at giving Hank’s daughter, Becca (Madeleine Martin), some genuine teenage angst, they settle for putting her in a band with reckless new friend Pearl (Zoë Kravitz). Last season, she was a cautionary mirror for Hank; this year, she’s kept largely on the sidelines, lazily trotted out from time to time to castigate her father. The same goes for Hank’s wife, Karen, who’s always been perhaps too much of the “good” girl for this show; instead of developing her or her budding relationship with Pearl’s father, nice-guy Ben (Michael Ealy), she’s cast as the straight woman to Charlie’s ex-wife, Marcy (Pamela Adlon), who, admittedly, is a pint-sized, foul-mouthed delight.
It’s in the final four episodes that Californication starts to live up to what it can be: “Another Perfect Day” displays a more tender side of Hank while still capturing the profound crassness of the show in the episode’s B plot, which involves Charlie’s crazy new girlfriend and a cigarette lighter. “The Trial,” when it finally arrives, brings with it a great sense of perspective, effectively using flashbacks (with new material, I believe) to show how Hank has—and more importantly, hasn’t—changed: “This is awful,” he says. “It’s like watching This Is Your Life in 3D, on acid. With your creepy uncle’s dick on your shoulder.” By the final episode, “…and Justice for All,” the show is firing on all cylinders and no longer forcing situations; instead, it builds to an organic—and still anarchic—conclusion, best capturing the elevator pitch of Hank’s story: “It’s about a man trying to hold things together while he’s falling apart.” Without that heart, Duchovny might as well go back to narrating The Red Shoe Diaries; at least then we didn’t expect him to grow.