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Perfect Pilots: Californication

A pilot can make or break a show and, if it’s not so great, it can turn off any viewer from watching the rest of the series. Join 25YL as we take a deep dive into TV pilots—the good and the bad—in our joint Perfect Pilots and Power Through the Pilot series. This week, join Will Johnson as he looks at the pilot episode of the Showtime show Californication and discusses why he thinks it’s a perfect pilot. Got a pilot episode you love or hate (or something in-between)? Be sure and let us know!

It didn’t take much to get me to watch the first episode of Showtime’s Californication due to my loyalty towards David Duchovny, the actor primarily known for The X-Files. As a fan of Duchovny’s dry, underrated wit, the concept of him helming a comedy show seemed right up my alley. Plus, it was his return to TV, a realm Duchovny seemed to flourish in. Known not just for The X-Files but for interesting supporting characters in The Red Shoe Diaries and Twin Peaks, to name a few, Duchovny made a name for himself with his unique look and nearly monotone line delivery.

Duchovny was one of the last “TV-or-movie-star” actors, back in a generation where the David Carusos and George Clooneys of the world gave up a cushy TV job and tried to break out in movies, for better or worse. In today’s world, it is pretty common to see movie stars go to TV and vice versa, but Duchovny came from this divided era: you were either a movie star or a TV star.

His leading-man film career during and after The X-Files went more the Caruso route: Playing God with Angelina Jolie and Tim Roth was a domestic flop, Bonnie Hunt’s Return to Me was a mildly successful rom-com—both critically and commercially—and Ivan Reitman’s Evolution was underrated but also underseen, earning only $18 million more than its budget when accounting for worldwide receipts. Since his departure from The X-Files, Duchovny simply wasn’t a draw at the cinema.

David Duchovny as Hank Moody in Californication on Showtime

Duchovny kind of meandered about for six or seven years after his big push, finding humorous cameo work in films like Zoolander and Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal and even getting to make his directorial debut in the polarizing House of D. But it wasn’t until 2005 or so that directors started placing Duchovny in more reality-based, ensemble dramedies that utilized his way with words and dry sensibilities to maximum effect. This, in turn, helped him create a second life and a second career.

2004’s Trust the Man and 2006’s The TV Set put Duchovny in straight man situations where he was able to dryly stare at the continually ridiculous situations surrounding him and offer a quip or two to point out the absurdity or folly of it all. These projects not only led to some indie cred for Duchovny but also took the pressure off of him having to be a “star”; instead he could be a go-to option for comedy/dramas with an indie bent and ensemble casts. This opened him up to a new audience who, like me, adored him for his prior work and wanted to see him succeed in new ventures.

During his reprisal of Fox Mulder for the critically mixed (and commercial dud) The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Duchovny finally returned to TV with Californication, a Showtime program that didn’t have to deal with the strict censorship of network TV.

David Duchovny as Hank Moody in Californication on Showtime

Californication was to be the anti-Mulder. The overall story focused on Hank Moody (Duchovny): a boozing, sex-obsessed novelist with immense writer’s block, intense self-loathing, and an addiction to self-destruction. But Moody also had a devout loyalty to his precocious and world-weary twelve-year-old daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin) and his ex-lover, Becca’s mother Karen (Natascha McElhone). Unlike Mulder, who was a near-genius but an intense loner, Hank Moody is all about socializing as long as he has a drink in hand, a constantly lit cigarette, and a narrow escape (sometimes without pants) from his many sexual situations.

The pilot premiered on August 13th, 2007. Other notable premieres in 2007 included the still running network hit The Big Bang Theory, the always-near-cancellation network comedy Chuck, and, of course, the seminal cultural touchstone Mad Men. Breaking Bad was just around the corner a mere five months later. TV was in the humble beginnings of its next Golden Age (though the date ranges are arguable) and Californication, much like Duchovny himself, was leading the edgier indie set. More on the margins, Californication was able to push boundaries more widely seen fare could not.

The pilot was directed by Stephen Hopkins, who began his career as a genre director (A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Predator 2, Judgment Night, Blown Away and The Ghost and the Darkness, to name a few) before shifting to darker television fare like 24 and, later, House of Lies. His direction of Californication’s pilot, simply titled “Pilot,” is constantly in motion, directed with ’70s-style zooms and grainy film stock.

David Duchovny and Madeline Zima in Californication on Showtime

The hazy look is to show that Californication’s setting isn’t the typically sunny, pleasant California you see in the movies but a place where dreams go to die and people live to the side, hoping to resurrect those dreams (usually to no avail). The embodiment of this aesthetic is Hank Moody himself. Though naturally handsome with his perfect five o’clock shadow (maybe bordering on seven o’clock at times) and well-defined jaw, Moody is nonetheless disheveled, constantly grimacing from the harsh lighting of a standard day, and, as many characters point out, constantly smelling of sex (if not smoke and unwashed clothes).

Moody gets by on his inarguable charm and a formerly burgeoning career as a Bret Easton Ellis-type novelist with three well-received novels under his belt. As we meet him in the pilot, he is currently in the midst of the worst writer’s block of his career. The reasons for the block are many but primarily Moody is mourning the loss of lover Karen, who has moved on to the stodgy Bill (who we meet in later episodes) who promises to marry her—something Hank would not do himself. It also doesn’t help that his edgy book God Hates Us All has been turned into an immensely popular (yet sanitized) film starring Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes called A Crazy Little Thing Called Love.

The reason why I consider this a perfect pilot is mainly because of how dense and fast-paced the introductory episode is. In an astonishingly short time of only 33 minutes, the show not only introduces all of the backstory and plot machinations above but also introduces Moody’s agent and best friend Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler), Runkle’s wife (Pamela Adlon), and what turns out to be Bill’s sixteen year old daughter Mia (Twin Peaks: The Return vet Madeline Zima) who Hank inadvertently sleeps with (before finding out her age or close connection, FYI) much to his dismay and shame.

On top of the multiple character arcs, the 33 minutes fit in a saucy dream sequence, three sex scenes, multiple scenes of full-frontal nudity, about eight or nine location changes, a flashback, and six or seven curated tunes that fit perfectly with the subject matter (including the Rolling Stones epic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”). The pilot is a barrage of information, titillation, and non-stop zingers and comedic set pieces.

This frenetic pace is aided by the perfect casting and perfectly tuned script, written by Dawson’s Creek producer/writer Tom Kapinos. This success allows us to feel like we have already watched the characters interact for years as there is nothing stilted or stagey about the scenarios. The jokes in particular feel naturally built in and not forced. Due to this, the quick verbal back-and-forths between characters add to that frenetic energy surging through the episode.

Duchovny and McElhone seem like a real ex-couple and are an engaging duo to watch. McElhone, in particular, has her moments when she can’t resist Moody’s charms but is also very used to his self-destructive tendencies. She is like a relationship war veteran who never lets any of her emotions overpower her; she smiles or frowns at Hank, never falling back in love with him but also never feeling like she should abandon him.

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Even better is Duchovny’s on-screen chemistry with his fictional daughter Becca, played by Martin. They are so at ease with each other and, as a father of a daughter slightly younger than Becca myself, I feel their connection on a personal level. It almost transcends acting and is purely natural. If you told me Martin was Duchovny’s daughter in real life, I wouldn’t have reason to doubt.

The pilot only touches on Moody and Runkle’s relationship briefly but there is enough chemistry there to make you want to see more. There is not a lot of Adlon either but the adorable firecracker will obviously play a much larger role later in the series.

Savagely witty and down-and-dirty with the shadier aspects of California life, Californication was met with mostly positive reviews and got some award recognition. The premiere season was nominated for the Best Series – Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes and Duchovny won for Best Actor.  Season 1 has a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though some sources, like The AV Club, gave the series a rare F grade.

David Duchovny and Madeleine Miller in Californication on Showtime

It’s hard to defend the lifestyle of Hank Moody but there is something pure and realistic about him that doesn’t ring true with similarly sex-obsessed characters on shows like Entourage. Moody’s flaws are why we like him and frankly, Don Draper and Walter White have far worse demons that viewers looked passed to show love for. So maybe Hank gets a break—or at least a good punch in the face before sharing a cigarette and calling it a day.

Enjoy the opening scene from the pilot and, if you like it, the entire series is available on Netflix.

 



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Written by Will Johnson

Will is the author of the little read book Secure Immaturity: A Nostalgia-Crushing Journey Through Film. Seriously, I think only his mom read it. Will contributes articles to 25YL on horror films, pop culture, books and comics. Will loves his hometown Buccaneers, the MCU, and his two nerdy daughters. He lives in Phoenix, AZ, USA.

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