After years of terrorizing the competition with one innovative, highly rated show after another, from The Sopranos to Six Feet Under to Deadwood, HBO is finally showing signs of weakness. Other cable networks are starting to appropriate the model, even those as far-flung and unlikely as AMC, which is currently responsible for the best show of the summer (by far) in Mad Men. At the same time, HBO has lost its flagship show in a jarring cut to black, closed out many major series like Deadwood and Rome, and is stumbling along with series that are either coming to an end (the unpopular but brilliant The Wire) or have reached their creative limit (Entourage). This summer, only the returning Big Love (in a relatively strong second season) and the quirky, minor-key cult favorite Flight Of The Conchords has gained much traction while its long-shot hope, John From Cincinnati, could generously be referred to as “enigmatic.” And the new Fall season, anchored by the miserablist sex romp Tell Me You Love Me, doesn’t seem likely to end the network’s rough transitional period.
This isn’t meant to slag HBO, which is still heads and tails above the competition in terms of creative ambition and talent, even during this fallow time. But other cable outlets are clearly sensing blood in the water and are scrambling to scoop up the viewers that are dribbling away from HBO. And no network has been thumping its chest harder than Showtime, which launched its fall season early last night by airing a smartly planned pairing in Weeds and Californication, two half-hour comedies about the sins of two unreasonably attractive West Coasters over 40. With Dexter returning in late September, the network has good reason to believe that the momentum is swinging in its favor.
I scarfed down the Californication pilot and the first four episodes of Weeds’ third season over the weekend, and was left to wonder: Is this the glibbest hour in television history? That’s not meant as an outright dismissal of either show, which both have their pleasures, but their non-stop attitude, self-consciously “clever” dialogue, and general air of smug complacency can get a bit wearying after awhile. A little sincerity, please—and barring that, how about some insight instead?
Nevertheless, the jury’s still out for me on Californication, which brings David Duchovny back to Showtime after his long stint smarming up Red Shoe Diaries. Based on the pilot, the new show looks to be a much better augmented breast delivery system than Diaries, because it offers the fantasy of Duchovny outbedding Warren Beatty in his prime while making the sex more frank and funny and real-seeming than those gauzy shots of plastic models humping to a syrupy music score. Granted, the sex scenes in Red Shoe Diaries are more protracted than the ones in Californication—which are cut short in the first episode by an angry boyfriend, a cell phone call, and one unexpected (and admittedly funny) bit of kink I wouldn’t dare spoil here—but that’s because they only serve one function.
Early reviews of Californication—the positive ones, anyway—have likened Duchovny’s narcissistic author to Beatty in Shampoo, another incorrigible man-whore whose life is vacant at the core. Time will tell whether the show will face up to that emptiness in any substantial way, but for now, it’s mostly about Duchovny looking past the problems in his life (his failed relationship with Natasha McElhone, who he clearly sees as a soulmate; his joint custody with their too-old-for-her-age daughter Madeleine Martin; and the crippling writer’s block that has dogged him since the publication of his first novel) by sampling an endless buffet of available women. In this sense, it’s Showtime’s answer to Entourage, though here the male lifestyle fantasy is thankfully undercut by the suggestion that Duchovny’s swinging bachelor is really a monogamous family man at heart.
Creator Tom Kapinos cut his teeth as a writer—and in the last two seasons, show-runner—for Dawson’s Creek, which seems about right. To his credit, he’s tailored a perfect role for the smooth yet self-deprecating Duchovny, whose aging cad hovers between cool and pathetic, tipping toward the latter whenever it’s revealed just how narcissistic he really is. (He’s the sort of guy who spends time Google-ing himself and thumbing through his own novels at the bookstore.) And there’s some funny dialogue here. (My favorite: Duchovny’s daughter, after discovering a naked woman in her father’s bedroom, reports, “[She has] no hair on her vagina. Do you think she’s okay?”) We’ll see how the show evolves over the season, but I’m tentatively on board, and for more than prurient reasons, too.
As for Weeds, I’m still ambivalent about it. (The pluses: Mary Louise-Parker (without whom the show would collapse), Kevin Nealon, occasionally Elizabeth Perkins, some surprisingly good plotting, and tart one-liners. Minuses: Irritating no-good brother-in-law, vapid older kid, too-precocious younger kid, and the total lack of nuance in its suburban satire, just for starters.) And yet it’s addicting and watchable as ever, thanks again to Parker’s widowed pusher, who remains fundamentally naïve about the drug business yet still assured and resourceful about working her way out of sticky situations.
I won’t get into Weeds too much now, since I already covered it here and here, but I think the third season is off to a promising start. Season Two left Parker in what Ned Flanders would call a “dilly of a pickle”: With two sets of assault rifles pointing at her—one from Armenian gangsters, the other from a crew led by a thug named U-Turn—Parker discovers that her entire stash has been lifted from the house safe. It turns out her older son was the culprit, stealing the drugs to use as leverage in an effort to force his way into the family business. But he’s in another sort of trouble, too, since Perkins is having him arrested for stealing her street signs and surveillance cameras—and worse yet, she’s given the keys to his hash-filled car.
I admire the show for not trying to untangle this mess right away; in fact, things get much worse for Parker and company before they start getting better. That’s good news, because the show works best when Parker has to improvise her way out of jams and scramble to maintain a lifestyle that’s beyond her (legal) means. I’m a little worried that the introduction of a neighboring, super-Christian town called Majestic will open up some opportunities for cheap potshots at religion—and Mary-Kate Olsen (gulp) hasn’t made her appearance yet—but I’m surprised at how anxious I am about how things will play out.
Showtime’s new Monday night lineup sure goes down easy. So what if it doesn't provide an ounce of nourishment?