Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Hap-Hap-Happiest Time of the Year, Fall '07 TV Watch: Californication and the Tell Me You Love Me pilot

One of the positive things about not writing about television professionally is that I can avoid slogging through the stuff that bores me, like HBO's once-promising and plodding new series Tell Me You Love Me. There was only one good reason to watch this "provocative and honest exploration of intimacy:" the actors, and they don't exactly deny it, are having actual sexual relations on camera. But in the pilot, there's maybe three minutes of naked bouncing and a lot — at least seven separate character arcs worth — of filler. Not narrative foreplay, just this tired, lethargic semi-philosophical conversation, as if HBO decided it wasn't really in the mood and was pretending to have a headache.

But onto the sex! The only thing I can say is that it's got a higher production value than most porn, and holy cow does reproducing look tedious. There's four couples: Dave and Katie, Jamie and Hugo, Caroline and Palek, and Old Sex Therapist Lady and her old husband. In the pilot, only one of them pushes any sort of on-camera limits. The good news is that it's Jamie and Hugo, the most physically attractive couple; the bad news is that all you can focus on are Hugo's balls and just... ewwww. It's only a minute of that, and the rest of their story is an extremely standard "she's pissed because he refuses to commit" plot that I'm sure cavemen and cavewomen were suffering through. Hugo's thinking — there's a lot of people in the world and chances are good he'll meet an additional someone — feels genuine, but everything that comes after it — especially garrulous Jamie's refusal to discuss this observation — is as forced as if Hugo met Bill Henrickson in church one day.

The other couples are really no less generic. Katie tolerates her passionless marriage until she catches Dave masturbating in bed one day. There's not even a lot of not-having-sex in that storyline — the scene where Katie and Dave are naked together and completely oblivious barely registers. Caroline blames Palek for her inability to conceive, but it too feels forced. Maybe this is a pacing issue; we never see Caroline and Palek (or anybody in this show, really) happy so there's nothing to contrast their break down against. There's two other problems I have with Caroline and Palek as well. First, whenever I look at Adam Scott, I see Mr. Rooks, the pederast history teacher from Veronica Mars, and when Caroline starts stroking something that, in the dark and from a distance, could be his cock, it's just really creepy. And second, the bathroom in their house doesn't have a door. Caroline's essentially peeing on a pregnancy stick right out in the open, and people who do that shouldn't have children in the first place.

The couples are connected through their couples' therapist, Old Lady May, who is having sex, although thankfully in the dark and under the covers. I guess even old people don't want to look at themselves in the nude... although if HBO was honest about pushing boundaries, that would be the one to push.

Also sex-heavy, but even more squeamish, is David Duchovny's Californication — its name tells you that it's licentious. And also that it takes place in California. Genius. Duchovny plays Hank Moody, a once-successful writer who sleeps with women (less than) half his age even though he's a complete prick. Californication manages to hit every single false note possible, largely because I can't understand for the life of me what Hank is so cranky about.

Look, the season premiere of House is tonight, and there's a character who's insufferable with some motivation. House is surrounded by idiots, some of whom are responsible for crippling him. I'd be pissed too. Moody, on the other hand, is an ungrateful little shit, with a Porsche, a great apartment in the hills, and a never-ending supply of easy women. It doesn't really help or hurt that Moody (or Duchovny) explores his own depths — the problem is that the show itself is completely disingenuous. Hank's book, "God Hates Us All," somehow wound up with a Hollywood beauty makeover and turned into a movie "A Little Thing Called Love" starring Tom and Katie. (I've gotta admit I found that funny.) He's hired to write a blog — oh, the indignity of people reading your words off a computer screen instead of a printed page! — for "Hell A" magazine. I get it already: California's full of phonies. Hank fits right in.

The ultimate issue with Californication is that Hank's own phoniness undermines what should be real moments of redemption for him. In the pilot, Hank stops in southern California's home of vanity, the Apple Store, and writes a quick couple of sentences about how he only likes going down on hairy women. Great — he's writing again — and he's being subversive! — but his prose is so clunky I wonder why he's a writer in the first place. The little voice-over at the end of the third episode, Hank decides to write the magazine's blog so he can be a role model for his daughter, is sappy enough I wanted to puke, largely because Hank is just the kind of guy who's barely even aware that he has a daughter unless she's standing right in front of him. All the griping and false, obvious revelations wear thin pretty quickly.

But good news — like I said, House premieres tonight, and that's pretty much guaranteed to be somewhere between solid and great. (Their last two season premieres were pretty much in the "solid" category.) Reaper is supposed to be good, Damages is improving now that Rose Brynn's incredibly dumb character is actually playing that high-powered legal (and extra-legal) game, and Heroes didn't suck last night, even if we now have three characters who can fly, signaling that the producers have officially run out of ideas for superpowers.