Showtime's "Californication," a new series named after the Red Hot Chili Peppers song, is the story of Hank, who is brought vividly to life by David Duchovny. Hank is the cliché of an ex-husband who pushed his wife away and now longs for her. He's the cliché of a man in a midlife crisis, jumping from woman to woman to prove his vigor. And he's the cliché of a writer busy Googling himself because he has writer's block. In "Californication," which premieres Monday at 10:30 p.m. after "Weeds," Hank is as familiar as a palm tree on Rodeo Drive.
But never mind the clichés, because Duchovny makes his character worth watching, as he swaggers from bad predicament to bad predicament, pretending not to care about his life anymore. Long bottled-up on TV as Mulder on "The X-Files," Duchovny is finally free to get his decadence on, as well as his wry side, which fans of "The Larry Sanders Show" may remember fondly.
Duchovny, one of the show's executive producers, really throws himself into the character of Hank, who is so dissolute and childish but also stubbornly adult in his inability to glaze over the truth. Duchovny manages to make Hank almost heroic at moments -- a bitter cynic whose inappropriate honesty marks him as an outsider in a town that thrives on pretty lies.
Showtime is billing "Californication" as a comedy, but it's more like a dark character study with laughs. It's a "Shampoo"-like portrait of a man in free fall, with no heroes, living through the last chapter of the Bush era. In the premiere, Hank sleeps with beautiful women, but he doesn't feel during these encounters; he goes through the motions, perpetually drunk or hung over. The episode closes fittingly to the strains of a cover version of Elton John's "Rocket Man," with the astronaut "burning out his fuse up here alone." Hank thinks he just needs ex-wife Karen (Natascha McElhone) back, but we know better. His numbness is chronic, a cozy hiding place in the sky for a man who may never make it back to Earth.
Hank and Karen share a 12-year-old daughter, Becca (Madeleine Martin), who keeps them in each other's orbit. They argue a lot -- "Who won that round?" Becca asks Hank after she watches yet another spat -- but love is present in the intensity of their eye contact. Karen is involved with a man named Bill, but she doesn't defend her new life very convincingly when Hank insists she doesn't love Bill. "We were great once, and you know it," he reminds her. It's one of his heroic moments -- bursting self-deception with truth. California -- more specifically, LA -- wants to screw with Hank's head, to fill him with unreality, but he refuses to succumb.
If Duchovny can actually turn Hank's life around believably in the course of the season, it will be quite something. Redemption seems impossible for a man spiraling down with such abandon. And Hank makes a huge error in judgment in tonight's episode that's sure to add ballast to his fall, even while it increases his presence in Karen's life. Can Hank, who grieves the fact that Hollywood turned his novel "God Hates Us All" into a silly movie called "A Crazy Little Thing Called Love," ever truly find that crazy little thing called love?