When it premiered in 2007, I thought Californication was a real break-through in television. It’s hard to be specific at this remove about the details of what I liked. I think the first season was funny, but it had an emotional rawness to it in places that seemed to elevate the creative intent of the show above a tawdry sex comedy. Like the lead character, Hank, I felt like the show was glib as a protective measure against genuine emotion. I have been ambivalent about every season since that one while watching it.
Coming into Season 5 was tough: I found the first couple of episodes nigh unwatchable. Hank’s glib deflection of life around him, his insensitivity to his girlfriend, and the compulsion of the first woman he meets to want to fuck him pushed to the fore the worst aspects of his personality and the least enjoyable aspects of the show. I had a similarly negative reaction to the previous season, and especially reacted adversely in Season 5 because it was very well-trod ground. Nevertheless, I persisted, not least because at this point I’ve come to realise that the very ambivalence of my response to each season makes this show perpetually more interesting to me than it’s nominal subject matter suggests. For example, at the time I panned Season 2, but with some years of hindsight I see it as the a near-perfect expression of the central interests of the show. By the end of Season 5, I recognised that despite it’s opening gambit, the show’s direction has changed completely from the earlier seasons and with very interesting effect. There are spoilers from here.
Hank is a free agent in Season 5, inasmuch as he’s no longer obsessed with Karen, who is herself in a stable and apparently well-adjusted relationship with another writer. I had complained in earlier seasons that the show had become simply a progression of women throwing themselves at Hank, and while there is still an aspect of that in Season 5, it is far less of a leitmotif of Season 5. In fact, in Season 5, Hank represents a generally calm centre for a series of stories about the troubles in others’ lives. It is therefore virtually a structural reversal of the earlier show, a neat trick to manage without sacrificing the essential iconic traits of Hank or the other leading protagonists.
In structural terms, that makes Season 5 a kind of Love Actually, a complex sequence of somewhat inter-twined love stories, connected by the tangential presence of Hank. How perfect is the marriage of Karen and Bates really? How can Stu, big-shot movie producer, remain faithful to Marcy? Can Charlie break out of his sequence of semi-commercial relationships to find a real one? Granted, it plays out a little less saccharin than Curtis’ film, more like a Fuck Actually. The structure is complex because of the interconnectedness, but each individual strand is simple and unsurprising. Most of the action is neither shocking nor surprising, and so the interest derives from Jenni‘s favourite film question: Does it make me love the people?
As always with this show, the answer is a little ambivalent. I didn’t particularly enjoy or care about any of the new characters introduced for this season’s stories. Samurai Apocalypse is no Lew Ashby, but fulfils a pretty similar story function. Bates, a minor character from Season 3, is roguish and charming, but too clearly a story cipher for Hank himself – a semi-alcoholic writer in love with Karen? His role as stand-in for Hank is even understood and called out by the characters themselves. Becca’s beau Tyler, another carbon-copy of Hank, could hardly be less likeable. The characters who come through from previous seasons though, retain their likeability, and Hank’s imitations do help the audience to see that Hank’s not a bad guy really. He suffers from poor impulse control, and the key scenes which get him into trouble in Season 5 are re-writing a script portion to beef up the part of the film’s leading female, and defending a prostitute from taking a beating in the line of duty- noble, if imperfectly executed, goals.
What’s been lost though, is the emotional punch the show had. The whole thing feels very safe and comfortable. We’ve seen too many iterations of each of these troubles for any to feel like they’re breaking new ground or trying new things. Yet, to an extent, the show also felt a little less like a gimmick show – it didn’t rely on Hank’s ill-controlled libido coupled with soft-core porn to get through each episode the way Season 3 did. The show feels more measured, more mature. I’m not sure that’s what it needed, but it needed to change something and so I’m glad that it tried something new this time out.