Slouching Toward La-La Land

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: Courtesy of Showtime

Not that I’m complaining, exactly, but two different pairs of naked female breasts show up in the first eight minutes of Californication, and a third pair just before the seventeen-minute mark. Since the entire pilot episode is only a half-hour long, it’s almost as if, on premium cable, nurturing were the thesis, the subtext, and the leitmotif. Or maybe all those nipples are actually eyes, watching David Duchovny be a bad boy. Which is certainly how he presents himself as Hank Moody, a New York writer who sold his novel and his soul to Hollywood; who, behind vampire shades, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth like a fuse, tools around town in a black T-shirt and a sporty convertible; and who hasn’t been able to write an honest sentence since Karen, the mother of his child, left him and wound up with some square who makes money instead of art.

Karen, played by a Natascha McElhone so resourceful that she can also be seen this week as a Hungarian freedom fighter in TNT’s CIA mini-series The Company, is less interested in money than in truth-in-advertising. Since arriving in Los Angeles, all that Hank has done at his computer is Google himself. So Karen has taken their 12-year-old daughter, Becca, in search of someone more authentic. Becca, played by super-savvy Broadway wondergirl Madeleine Martin (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The Pillowman), is only mildly disconcerted to find naked women in her father’s bed, but she has a harder time slipping back and forth across the border between warring parents like a refugee, a smuggler, or a spy. The other regulars include Evan Handler (Sex and the City, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) as Hank’s worried agent, Charlie, who gets him an online sex-writing gig, and Madeline Zima (The Nanny) as Mia, a slinky, novel-reading, surprise package of jailbait. The executive producers are Tom Kapinos, who created the series and used to write for Dawson’s Creek, and Scott Winant, a veteran of thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, and Dead Like Me.

Dark comedy suits insouciant Duchovny. Some of his best moments on The X Files were spent making fun of himself and, while he was at it, sending up the paranoid eschatology of the woo-woo series. Here he delivers a tousled sort of aw-shucks Huck Finn, lighting out for erotic territories. McElhone, à la Rene Russo, manages to convey the notion of adult womanhood without being either drippy or schoolmarmish about it. You have to grow up to get her; little boys need not apply. Handler seems as usual to seethe, as if his psychic baggage were a portmanteau containing equal parts helpless resentments and embarrassing secrets. Martin and Zima, on opposite sides of the Lolita line, are both keepers. The jokes—about cell phones, blow jobs, and nuns—are passable. The breasts—all three pairs—are firm but bouncy. And the golden-oldie music cues—Rolling Stones, Elton John—thumbtack Hank to his Romantic wishfulness, his wall-to-wall nostalgia for himself.

But I have my doubts. It is Hollywood’s odd fantasy about itself that it is more hedonistic and corrupting than anywhere else in America. And yet, as often as we are asked to contemplate East Coast writers turning in their talent for a swimming pool in lotusland, surely we must have noticed that more wordies sell out to corporate media every nanosecond in New York than ever wolfed down a movie option. (Anyway, maybe the fault is in the author, not the desert. William Faulkner got exactly what he needed from Hollywood, more money, without ever messing up his novels.) And after Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Joan Didion, Mike Davis, and Walter Mosley, it should have become obvious that Los Angeles is at least as complicated as the Upper West Side, the East Village, or Park Slope. In fact, all over this nation and throughout the Western world, a host of Hanks feel sorry for their boyish ways, their cheeky behaviors. They would grow up, really they would, if only the culture stopped encouraging them to imagine themselves as Peter Pans among a bunch of horny Tinker Bells.

Showtime. Mondays at 10:30 p.m. Premieres August 13.

Slouching Toward La-La Land