Dissolute writer Hank Moody (David Duchovny) begins the seventh and final season of Californication much as he began the first—resolved to change. “I could chalk it up to fear and self-loathing in Los Angeles,” he tells producer Rick Rath (Michael Imperioli), pleading for a job on the television series Santa Monica Cop. “But the truth is that I’m trying to grow the fuck up for once.” Hank’s battle with late-onset adulthood remains the ribald comedy’s central premise, but the problem with Californication is that it so closely resembles adolescence: Overrun with bad scatological humor and the fantasy of promiscuity, it’s six years longer than you want it to be.
The long, slow death of Californication is the new season’s unintended subtext. Even at its peak, creator and executive producer Tom Kapinos’s tale of a man-child’s sexual (mis)adventures carelessly crossed the boundary from satire to self-parody, but what once appeared a style now seems simply an affectation. When Hank and Rath head down to casting for the role of “crack whore” on Santa Monica Cop, the absurd dialogue of the audition tape (“The rock is my friend, my love, my confidante,” “That’s all the dick this girl is gonna need”) sounds like nothing so much as, well, Californication. One need not be prudish to recognize that the series is now held together by spit, glue, and semen—crass jokes strung together over a narrative as scanty as the crack whore’s dress.
It wasn’t always this way. From the outset, Californication hewed to a dispiritingly narrow view of writing, sex, Los Angeles, life, but nevertheless succeeded over the course of the first season in positioning Hank as something more than a self-styled Bukowski. As Hank courted his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Karen (the luminous Natascha McElhone), and sparred with their no-nonsense daughter, Becca (Madeleine Martin), Duchovny’s insouciance segued into tenderness. For a few episodes, such as the delightful “Girls, Interrupted,” their collaborative rhythms staked new territory for televisual kinship, rejecting stereotypes of both “the broken home” and domestic bliss. Their family was as unmannered and complicated as mine, or yours, consistently defying convention. With the conclusion of season one, in which the trio stole away in Hank’s Porsche, the series made good on the home-movie optimism of its sun-splotched 16mm cinematography—used primarily as a bridge between scenes—and it did so honestly. Californication was never a great series, but in that moment it felt like a worthy one.
Through the looking glass of season seven, this golden age is a gauzy memory. The final 12 episodes are mostly unconcerned with closing the circle, and without McElhone and Martin to provide the necessary ballast (they turn up infrequently, in roles that now play as sorely underwritten), Californication spins off in a hundred fruitless directions. Hank hooks up with an old flame (Heather Graham) and gains a new sidekick (the endlessly grating Oliver Cooper), while the recently remarried Charlie and Marcy Runkle (Evan Handler and Pamela Adlon) reprise their depraved love affair. The painfully forced banter of the Santa Monica Cop writers’ room exemplifies the attention-deficient whole, bouncing among projectile vomit, “cock cages,” and Instagram snapshots in the course of a single scene. For a series so turned on by its own supposed shock value, the humor is disappointingly flaccid; the inscriptions in my eighth-grade yearbook contain cum jokes delivered with more commitment.
Were Californication’s final season marred simply by the surfeit of failed gags and retrograde sexual politics (though set in the present day, it often seems more like a period piece than Mad Men), it would suffice to call it a disappointment, a guilty pleasure unfulfilled. But of the season’s many flaws, its most irksome is a vein of self-congratulation, as though Kapinos has been hiding some profound insight about human relationships within this wet dream of modern manhood all along. Past and present allusions—to Lolita and Bukowski, Rolling Stone and Goethe—tend to frame Californication’s “serious” literary bona fides as inextricable from Hank’s adherence to what we might call the “penis mightier” school of authorial invention. “Wordplay, foreplay,” he says near the show’s end. “It’s all the same thing.”
As it happens, the notion that literature flows from the chaos of a life lived out of bounds is no less rote than Californication’s juvenile comedy. At least since Hemingway’s heyday, we’ve lionized men—and it’s always men—who drink, smoke, and fuck their way to “the Great American Novel,” so much so that writing sometimes appears a lifestyle rather than a craft. It’s this supine cast of mind that ultimately leaves Californication shooting blanks: The self-consciously “searching” moments that arrive in the last handful of episodes are unearned, long emptied of the first season’s promise. The series, like Hank, mistook the forthrightness of sex as an act of bravery, when it’s always been more daring to be vulnerable to love.