Studying Storytelling: Californication

This post is Volume 2 in an ongoing series called "Studying Storytelling." 
Read here for more on this series.

The first edition of "Studying Storytelling" discussed The Sopranos, a show that I considered to be a top-to-bottom success. Sure, there were inevitable variations in quality from episode to episode and season to season, but the arc of the show remained entertaining and well-written from start to finish. I also think the show wrapped up right about at the point where it needed to without dragging on too long.

Today's "Studying Storytelling" shows the other side of that coin in the form of Californication. For the uninitiated, Californication was a comedy/drama that aired for seven seasons on Showtime. Here's the synopsis from IMDB.

A self-loathing, alcoholic writer attempts to repair his damaged relationships with his daughter and her mother while combating sex addiction, a budding drug problem, and the seeming inability to avoid making bad decisions.

I watched all seven seasons of Californication, which is odd because I did not always enjoy it that much. Obviously something kept me watching. So what was it? This is my attempt to unpack my issues with the show while also discussing the primary reason I stuck with it.

One Good Season and Six Attempts to Repeat It

Writing a television show is a tricky thing. Many shows get scripts sold but are never filmed. Even those that get a pilot shot often never air. So while a show's creators may hope for a long run, they can't really plan that way. They have to focus on grabbing an audience right away, on coming out of the gates with the best stuff they've got. Otherwise the show will get tossed to the scrapheap before it ever gets a chance to worry about an endgame.

But what happens when your show does catch on? What do you do when you've got a hit on your hands and you suddenly have to think beyond the first few episodes or first season? For a sitcom or a procedural show, it's not quite as big of a deal because it's accepted that each show is mostly self-contained. For serialized shows like Californication the challenge is greater because they are constructed on the notion that it's all going somewhere, even if the writers don't know where that is yet. Sometimes a show figures it out and sometimes it doesn't.

This challenge is at the heart of my feelings about Californication. The first season was an entertaining and contained story that, unfortunately, I felt never needed any follow-ups. It could have ended satisfyingly after one season but ended up with six of them. Maybe the creators always had an idea for a long running show, but as a viewer it felt like an ongoing struggle to recapture the flame of one great story arc by more or less repeating it six times. Did we really need six more seasons to watch Hank Moody try to grow up?*

I don't believe so, but commercial success often trumps what might seem like an ideal artistic decision to an outsider. We can lament this all we like, but the fact is a TV show is not an act of charity. Showtime clearly felt it was worthwhile to renew the show each year, and I certainly can't fault the people working on it for accepting a steady paycheck. The first idea was the best, and the writers were saddled with a difficult problem in trying to find somewhere for the story to go once the show was successful. The struggle to do that played out in what became an inconsistent tone over subsequent seasons.

What Show Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

From the beginning, Californication straddled both comedy and drama. This is a difficult thing to do well, but the first season was largely successful. Hank's recklessness and the neuroses and quirks of his best friend and agent Charlie Runkle were played for laughs. But this was balanced by the consequences of their actions, Hank's genuine love for his daughter and her mother, and what felt like a legitimate endeavor to be better.

One of the first things to happen in the show involves Hank sleeping with Mia, the teenage daughter of his ex-girlfriend's (and mother of his daughter) new fiancee. What's more, the sixteen year old girl punches him in the face during sex, which was hilarious. He doesn't know she's underage and neither does the audience at the time, for whatever that's worth.

Take a sec to read that a couple of times because I know it's confusing. It's also ridiculous! But in the context of the show it did not feel that unrealistic. The characters are all flawed but in a mostly believable way given the setting of an exaggerated look at eccentricities of those in show business in LA. It provided some laughs, some drama and most importantly moved the story forward. Hank is a famous-ish writer, so Mia knows who he is but he does not know her.** Mia looks older, is unhappy, and wants to upset the apple cart. It's not just for shock value. Mia has real motivations, even if those motivations make the audience uncomfortable.

Future seasons never pull this kind of thing off with the same level of success, perhaps largely because the show seemed to have done it better already. Hank continues to find himself in bed with seeming one-night stands who then pop up in his life, but there's no comedic surprise in it nor a need to see what happens because we've already learned there are no real consequences for Hank.

At the beginning of season 5, Hank has sex with a woman called Kali on an airplane and you know she's going to reappear in contrived fashion. Of course it turns out Hank ends up working on a movie with her quasi-boyfriend, an actor-cum-rapper called Samurai Apocalypse. The character's played well enough by real-life rapper/producer RZA, but by then I didn't care. The shenanigans between Hank, Kali, and Samurai are appropriately crazy, but once again Hank comes away mostly unscathed and it's too familiar without anything new to say.

Great Characters Hide Big Problems, for Awhile

Why am I watching this again?

So if I felt like Californication peaked in the first season and then could not decide what kind of show to be afterward, why did I stick with it the rest of the way? Part of it was inertia. Part of it was sort of an academic exercise. But the biggest reason was even simpler: two specific characters, Charlie Runkle and his on-again, off-again wife Marcie. From the beginning, my favorite parts of the show were the "bromance" relationship between Hank and Charlie Runkle as well as the secondary storyline between Charlie and Marcie.

Viewed as objectively as possible, the friendship between Hank and Charlie is weird, self-destructive, and occasionally just doesn't make much sense. But it also made me laugh as long as I didn't think too hard about it. Though I never thought the show found another season-long story arc as entertaining and satisfying as the first one, there were enough funny or interesting moments between Hank and Charlie that I kept chugging along.

Beyond Charlie and Hank, every time Pamela Adlon's Marcie*** showed up onscreen was an opportunity for something hilarious to happen. I thought the show tried too hard to make her a sort of zany comic relief piece, giving her some ridiculous storylines in the process, but I almost always enjoyed the show more when she was a part of  it.

The lesson here is just how important characters are and how far you can go on the strength of them. In film and TV, great performances from actors are a big part of it but credit also goes to the writers for crafting them. I stuck with Californication even as the episodes piled up where I didn't care much about the main storyline because I liked Charlie and Marcie so much (as characters if not as people). I remained interested in seeing their high jinx even when no longer cared about Hank and Karen's. Great characters can elevate mediocre stories, but only for so long. What's more, in Californication it was secondary characters that kept me coming rather than the leads. Supporting characters are important for great stories, but there's a problem when you start to want the main storyline to get out of the way for them.

What Have We Learned? Nothing.

Californication's initial success was a blessing and a curse. It got seven seasons out of one season's worth of stories. That's arguably a pretty great problem to have if you can get it. I certainly don't know that I could do any better, but there's one major way in which I would have tried.

The biggest problem with Californication was Hank Moody himself even though I thought David Duchovny was great in the role. Hank just seemed so gleeful in his acts of wanton chaos. With a lead character that seemed incapable of growth, the show amped up the slapstick in the form of crazy sexual encounters, drug and alcohol binges and general mayhem. If Californication had just decided it was going to be ridiculous, that might have been fine.

But every so often the show seemed to say, "oh right, there's supposed to be some drama here as well," and it would drop in some whispery monologue from David Duchovny about WHAT IT ALL MEANS. So I couldn't just enjoy the silliness, and the silliness had a corresponding deleterious effect on my ability to buy the drama when they returned to it. I certainly wouldn't have cared about not learning anything from a TV show if it didn't seem like the show wanted me to learn from it.

In an roundabout way, the show did teach me one key lesson for my own storytelling. Figure out what kind of story you're telling and then stick to telling that story. Easier said than done, perhaps, but a worthy goal.

*Talk about on the nose with the name of the lead character, huh? Moody. Yes. Yes he was.

**It's later revealed that Hank once briefly met her while drunk out of his mind, but it's clear he would not have recognized her.

***Pamela Adlon is also great on Louie and pretty much everything she touches. She did the voice of Bobby Hill from King of the Hill! How great is that? I didn't always love that show, but Bobby was probably my favorite part.

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