Drugs, Dirty Deeds Spell Success For Showtime

He’s a writer who doesn’t write. Well past his mid-20s, he still does drugs that go up your nose. He drinks in the morning and has more sexual partners in a week than your Uncle Terry uncouthly claims to have in a year. He is a man who, in normal conversation, uses words that without one’s eyeglasses might appear to read “aunt” or “hussy.”

Hank Moody, played by David Duchovny on Showtime’s “Californication,” shouldn’t be likeable. He shouldn’t be relatable. And he certainly shouldn’t be the main character of a recently renewed series that—in spite of the writer’s strike­—will soon start its sophomore season.

While cable television has certainly been home to a host of dysfunctional, even inhuman protagonists, most live life atop unusual and generally unsavory backdrops—notably, morgues, maximum-security prisons, and New Jersey.

Like its big-sister show “Weeds,” though, “Californication” takes place in the well-to-do suburbs of Los Angeles, a part of the country in which family dysfunction has almost invariably been depicted to be the unfortunate yet tolerable by-product of a desirably moneyed and beautiful life. Historically, viewers tend to excuse this and other kinds of objectionable behavior in television when presented with it as either part of a drama (polygamy, “Big Love”) or with a strong emphasis on the aforementioned glamour (general irresponsibility, “Entourage”). It is of note, then, that neither “Californication” nor “Weeds” is written in one of these veins—and that each is still finding success.

2006 found Mary-Louise Parker awarded with a Golden Globe for her funny, tender portrayal of a widowed mother driven to a life of Ziploc bags and gram scales in order to maintain her upper-middle-class status on “Weeds.” Her show has fast become Showtime’s most-watched comedy, according to Nielsen Media Research, with a 19% increase in third-season viewership from the previous season. Equally chest-inflating are the first-run numbers for “Californication,” the largest ever for a comedy on the network, not to mention another honor from the Hollywood Foreign Press for Duchovny last year.

So what exactly accounts for the popularity of these shows?

A 2007 press release by Robert Greenblatt, the premium channel’s president of entertainment, focuses in part on just this question. In describing the character of Hank Moody, he notes that “anyone expecting Agent Mulder to resurface will be pleasantly surprised to see David create a character who is deeply flawed yet funny, complicated, and utterly human.”

It is exactly that last part—“funny, complicated, and utterly human”—that equally speaks to the real appeal of Duchovny’s oft-soused scribe as it does to Parker’s pot-dealing mother of two. Fundamentally, these series are clever dramatizations of what is really the commonest of phenomena, one dignified by the greatest of American playwrights (cf. Willy Loman) and immortalized by the deftest of contemporary lyricists (cf. Rick Ross’s “Everyday I’m Hustling”). These are people, blemished in ways that particularly appeal to those aged 18-34, who are quite simply trying to get by. This new wave of Showtime shows is divorced from the television circles in which finding the perfect accessory or a rent-controlled apartment might be considered central plot conflicts (I’m looking at you, Ms. Bradshaw).

Despite how strangely relatable these series can be, it should be noted that they are far from being realistic. The bulk of the plots on the third season of “Weeds” bordered on the ridiculous, and the fact that Hank Moody can punch multiple people in the face and evade arrest and incarceration is ridiculous. While the premises of both of these shows are equally fantastic, they are no more so than the idea of a waitress, a chef, or a masseuse who can afford to live not only in Manhattan, but in a spacious and well-appointed loft. In fact, I (and apparently many viewers) find the absurdity of these new Showtime shows somehow more relatable. Certainly, there is a place for “Friends” on television, just as there is a place for comedies in which the lead character enlists her teenage son to help sell drugs (“Weeds”) or accidentally sleeps with 16-year-old girls (“Californication”). Nonetheless, there is a propensity among programmers to favor the Ross-and-Rachel type stories over the Tony-and-Carmellas.

It’s a stretch to say that the popularity of “Weeds” and “Californication” signal some sort of monumental sea change in the qualities television viewers value in their sitcom characters, or in the type and quality of content that will be produced in the future. But it is clear that at least one network has begun to do something completely different in their programming. In my book, that’s a good thing.

—Columnist Ruben L. Davis can be reached at rldavis@fas.harvard.edu.