What if Nathan Zuckerman had, in The Ghost Writer, left the daybed in E.I. Lonoff’s study and fled to the edge of the Pacific and installed his priapic self between the bunnies on the beach and the nymphs in the wooded hills? What if Annie Hall ended with Alvy Singer staying in Los Angeles? He and Annie might pass the days people-watching on Venice Beach and almost marry, and then he would ripen under the sun, and mellow, and rot.
To indulge such daydreams is to begin grasping the situation of Hank Moody, hero of Californication (Showtime, Monday at 10:30 p.m.), a screwball sex comedy starring David Duchovny. The show is sometimes sweet and wry, sometimes crass and vicious, and, though often subtle, it embraces that embarrassing title and flings itself boisterously into a hacky premise: Hank has written a novel (God Hates Us All) that Hollywood adapted into a vehicle for the present Mr. and Mrs. Cruise (A Crazy Little Thing Called Love) and now, shamed at having sold out, suffers madly from writer’s block. Co-existent with the acute graphophobia is a tenacious case of satyriasis.
It in fact understates the matter to say that Hank has a horny Roth hero’s anti-talent for choosing appropriate bedmates. In the pilot, his hookups include two married women, a random bimbo, a 16-year-old sadist, and a hot nun. True, Hanks defiles the bride of Christ only in a dream sequence, but this whole show amounts to a dream sequence—a literate sex fantasy for quasi-literary middle-aged males. Readers habituated to the B-cup titillation of The Tudors, Showtime’s new standard bearer for upper-middlebrow soft porn, should know that Californication is a worthy successor on that score and that Duchovny’s ass isn’t bad at all.
The other women in Hank’s life are his adolescent daughter (Madeleine Martin, styled after the goth pop-art moppet Emily the Strange) and her mother (Natascha McElhone, styled to look like Meryl Streep in Manhattan). He loves them both, and that has its problems. One of these is the absurd sequence in which Hank hops out of coitus with the random bimbo—”You’ve been violated,” he consoles her on the way out—in order to meet his ex and drag the kid out of a raging party just as she’s about to hit the bong. Calling too much attention to the show’s comic-book quality, the scene is either vastly too blatant or not quite shameless enough.
Holding our hand and our gaze through all this is Duchovny, this year emerging from all the caked-on murk and wounded gloominess of The X-Files to reveal himself as an awesome comic talent. At the movies, playing another downtrodden L.A. writer in The TV Set, he groused, sulked, and simmered. Here, boiling over, he makes it look like an awful lot of fun to be smartly mean and impulsively stupid, to make a lurid mess of house and home.