David Duchovny, Why Won’t You Love Me?

Or, reasons to watch Californication during the writers’ strike.

David Duchovny in Californication

Dear Hank Moody—or is it David Duchovny—where have you been all my life? Why didn’t I get to meet you and your half-amused, half-sorrowful mug (not to mention the sexual appeal you carry before you like the nicest kind of weapon) at one of those awful New York book parties where everyone looks desperately over one another’s shoulders for bigger fish to talk to when they’re not hovering near the drinks table?

Ah, that’s right, you went off to La-La Land before I could lay my hands on you, arriving just in time to watch your novel being made into a piece of tripe by, if I may quote you, “the mighty erection that is the movie industry.” Didn’t you know they would make a mess of your best seller, God Hates Us All, changing the Christopher Hitchens-esque title you must have been so proud of in all its clanking irony (one of several uneasy indications that you might not be a Great American Novelist after all) to the generic and billboardable A Crazy Little Thing Called Love and inserting the star power of TomKat? Did I mistake the glint in your eye that suggested you were too smart to think you could get the better of Tinseltown? But then again, if Tinseltown didn’t get the worse of you, I wouldn’t have the chance to watch how badly you fuck up on Californication. The show had its season finale several weeks ago, but it’s worth catching on demand as the writers’ strike drags on—hell, it’s worth subscribing to Showtime for.

Still, Hank, I can’t help but point out that once you took off for warm and shallow climes, everything went south: For starters, your muse abandoned you. Karen (Natasha McElhone, looking gorgeous and swan-necked, with a touch of hyperthyroidism around the eyes) the woman you loved but balked at marrying, finally had enough of you and your lost-boy ways—”a rude, disrespectful jackass who can’t get out of his own way” is her merciless characterization—and decided to marry Bill (Damien Young), an anal publishing tycoon with an ecologically correct house off the beach in Santa Monica. To add ego-assault to ego-affront, your tiresomely smart-ass 12-year-old daughter, Becca (Madeleine Martin, looking like a midget punkster-terror with black bangs that appear to be flattened down with spit), whom you adore as only a man without moorings would, went to live with Karen and Bill and Bill’s wanly precocious daughter, Mia * (whom you sleep with after she picks you up, with consequences that radiate right through to the season finale). You’re left high and dry with quality time with a daughter you want full time—because we know that inside every cad is a family man struggling to get out, right?

It goes without saying that you are hardly the first writer who has gone to the dark side (or in this case, sunny side) and sold his literary soul to Hollywood. Think of what Nathaniel West had to say for it, which was nothing good. And poor old Fitzgerald, continuing the long crackup that was the second act of his once-glittering life. And then there’s Bertolt Brecht, who scratched out one story credit—Hangmen Also Die—but loathed the place. (Then again, he loathed every place.) True, once in a while, someone comes along like Joan Didion who seems to straddle the best of both worlds—on returning to New York she explained to an interviewer that she found herself pining for “the swimming pools, the garden and supermarkets”—but she’s a rarified and singular type, not given to losing herself in the fast lane.

But alas, Hank, you couldn’t avoid the fast lane if you tried. There you are in your bachelor pad in Venice, with only your devoted agent (Evan Handler from Sex in the City, being his usual shmoozy bald self) to spill your troubled and cagey soul to, tootling around behind the requisite L.A. shades in your ratty Porsche convertible, worrying how your hair looks—your overtly insecure concern with your appearance, just like your Googling yourself or checking out your own novel in a bookstore, are some of the cuter or more awful things about you, depending on how you look at it—and picking up women by the dozen merely by … well … merely by standing or sitting there, nursing a drink or a cigarette. No matter that you pose in front of the mirror, chanting a mantra of self-hatred aloud before you take on the seductions ahead: “Nobody likes you; you’re ugly; your mother dresses you funny; now smile, you fucking douche.”

See, this is the strange part. There isn’t a female in greater Los Angeles who isn’t inexorably drawn to your pheromones, that seductive musk of self-deprecation mixed with humor, a touch of brutal candor, a goodly amount of pathos and a shot of gentleness, all set off by a kind of grown-up unhandsome handsomeness that’s far hotter than any pretty-featured Brad Pitt can offer up, at least for my money. In a city where women are obsessed with money, power, and abs, everyone—from age 16 up—falls for you, a fumbling loser whose own agent reminds him that he needs a “fucking job.” (The only gig you are offered in 12 episodes, typewriter-using Luddite that you are, is to blog for the über-hip Hell-A magazine.)

You could argue, of course, that your universal poon-dog allure is unrealistic (or perhaps a narcissistic bouquet from Duchovny the executive producer of the show to Duchovny the protagonist of the show?), but something about it seems right. Maybe it’s the way you seem to be both the ultimate feminist and the ultimate sexist all at once: someone who understands women’s plight—their need to inflate their breasts, denude themselves of pubic hair and assure themselves that the male gaze isn’t passing them by because of age or floppy vaginal lips—while at the same time taking advantage of those very anxieties. It’s as though you identify with women enough to occasionally ally yourself with them, without selling yourself out as a de-eroticized “softie,” a pal instead of a lover.

With the exception of Karen and Meredith, a titian-haired beauty you have a rare longer-than-one-night-fling with after meeting over an insult-ridden dinner (she asks you whether you’ve written anything she might have read and you sweetly answer, “That depends on whether you read, Meredith”), women are sex objects for you but they are also your only route to intimately connecting with something other than nightfall. You’re lonely and they’re lonely and no one pretends otherwise.

I might add that all the high-minded condemnation of the show’s excessive display of fornication (it’s not called Californication for nothing) and vulgar sexual punning (“the ass is always greener”) makes no sense to me, as though at this late, lax moment in our culture we’ve all gotten pure-minded and prefer our sex through a Vaselined lens. It’s hard to understand why easygoing, glossy nudity and dirty talk are seen as such a violation of the viewer’s morals, especially given the sober, discomfiting voyeurism of “tell me that you love me,” but it must have something to do with the mixture of poignant longing and flippant lusting that the show specializes in. Especially since the sex is often funny or interruptus or simply weird, as when Mattie, Bill’s daughter, gets so worked up that she feels it incumbent upon herself to punch you in the face as she orgasms. (This bit of not-even-S/M becomes the basis of a novel called, in yet another instance of your dubious way with titles, Fucking and Punching, which eventually gets stolen out from under your nose by Ms. Punchtrix herself.)

What I’m trying to say is that I have fallen in love with Californication, mixed reviews be damned. (The Brits, by the bye, appear to be far more appreciative of its glistening wordsmanship.) It’s easy to make fun of the show, precisely because in its own casual way it tries for literacy and up-to-the-microsecond cultural attunement; it’s also easy to detect all the many influences that hover just out of sight, such as Secretary and Entourage. The fantasy/dream sequences owe everything to Six Feet Under and the ghost of Shampoo floats by, suggesting that writers are the new hairdressers when it comes to eliciting female confessions. Indeed, some writer on the show seems never to have recuperated from the church-door-rattling conclusion to The Graduate. In the season’s finale, when you finally start acting like a grown-up and break out of what Karen calls “that big sick head” of yours, the freshly betrothed Karen, resplendent in bridal white, has a last-minute change of heart and screams “Hank!” exactly as Elaine screamed “Benjamin!” in The Graduate, leaving her new husband standing mouth agape as she jumps into your car, the Rolling Stones pounding out “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Californication is worth taking a look at because it is funny and skuzzy and touching and occasionally genuinely erotic. It partakes of real life just enough to make us feel we are watching an extension of our own lives, albeit one that has a lot of low-rent glamour going for it. The writing is frequently superb, suggesting an informing intelligence, a sort of low-balling of a highbrow subtext.

As for you, David Duchovny, I’m a belated fan, having never caught The X-Files or any of your other appearances other than that of invisible husband behind the gigantic Tea Leoni ads for whose jewelry line? But seeing you now, it’s no wonder you were the subject of Bree Sharp’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics, which went so far as to describe your warped charm as that of an American Heathcliff. For my taste, you’ve got too much Dudley Moore in you to live up to that comparison, but it’s a tribute to your slightly brooding aspect. And, yes, I know it’s just a show, but my bags are packed, I am ready for my flight, just in case you and Karen don’t work out. Meanwhile, assuming the strike eventually ends, there’s another season to look forward to—and the consoling notion that when it comes to TV you may mostly not get what you want to watch, but just once in a while, you get what you crave, week after week.

Lovesick in New York

Correction, Dec. 3, 2007: This piece originally stated that Bill’s daughter’s name is Maddie. It’s Mia. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)