Showtime's Californication, a series set to return on April 13, has for six seasons been one of the most interesting and underrated shows on television — brilliant in some respects, but too controversial in other respects to win many awards.
Despite the racy subject matter (as you might guess, characters spend a lot of time hopping in and out of bed), it's the only series in which the major character is a writer… and in which the subject of good vs. bad writing frequently comes up as a plot point. The protagonist, Hank Moody, has strong feelings about the subject. His feelings often reflect the outlook and philosophy of a real-life writer: Charles Bukowski. Californication shows how long a shadow Bukowski has cast among writers — even in L.A.
Californication — don't be too put off by the title — is about a hard-drinking, hard-living womanizer living in Los Angeles. "Womanizer" is a quaint term for what now is sometimes called a "sex addict" and sometimes called "a man who gets lucky." He's also a writer who's attained a modest degree of fame by writing realistic, gritty, autobiographical novels.
This character, Hank Moody, has a number of virtues. He's at heart a romantic. He has a teenage daughter, Becca, whom he fathered out of wedlock, and now his major goal in life is to be as a good a father as he can and to get back together with Becca's mother, Karen, who is the love of his life. He is gallant toward women and insists he'd be faithful to Karen if only they were in a committed relationship… but alas, some misunderstanding or bad timing always prevents that from happening.
The part is well matched to its star, David Duchovny. I never liked him much on the show that made him famous, The X Files. On that show, he seemed determine to portray his FBI character by setting a record for monotonic, apathetic reactions. The aliens were landing, the world was about to end, but Duchovny showed an emotional range that makes E.T. look like Olivier. Maybe, though, he was right to underplay that material. On the sci-fi classic The Outer Limits (the spiritual predecessor to The X Files), actors mugged and over-acted for the camera, often to unintentionally hilarious results. Maybe it was better to underplay everything.
But the character of Hank Moody is intelligent, literate, lusty, and deals with deep personal issues rather than with extra-terrestrials. Perhaps the part is so close to what Duchovny is (reportedly) like in real life, it liberated him. Neither underplaying nor overplaying the role, in Californication, he is spontaneous, funny, and believable.
Yet I wouldn't recommend watching more than an episode or two at a time. It's like sugar; you don't want to overdose on it. Moody gets women on a regular basis in a way that most real-life writers — even those in Hollywood — only dream of. And the women are all exceptionally attractive actresses, models, groupies, and surfer girls. There are no women on the show who are not under 35 and gorgeous. Life must be fun for him, but for most of us, this is an alternative reality that rivals anything on The X Files.
The downside of the show is that it gives men the idea that if you don't sleep with five beautiful women a day, you're hopelessly uncool. And it suggests to women they ought to be eternally 29, stunning looking, and available. This seems to me an unrealistic message… even for Southern California.
Hank Moody is a certain kind of writer. He's the sort who used to be represented by Ernest Hemingway but now most recalls… well, I'll get to that in a moment. Perhaps you know the type: hard drinking, hard living… and only occasionally hard working. His philosophy is: first you have to go out and live… really live… and then, if the gods then decide to bless you (or curse you, I suppose), you'll feel an overpowering need to write about your life, a need so great that you'll burst if you don't get it down on paper. Only then will you be a writer worthy of the name.
There is something to this view. It insists that good writing has to arise from an honest reaction to life and not be a contrivance or imitation of what's been done before. It rejects writing as an easy way of getting rich or attracting love — although, ironically, it helps get Moody a great deal of sex, if not love, because L.A. women are attracted to his books. But you can't force this kind of writing, and Moody often is shown agonizing when he's on deadline and the inspiration just won't come. At those times, writers live in Hell, and it's no wonder they drink.
The opposite view — the one most working writers would probably endorse — is that writing is more craft than inspiration, and that therefore, the job of a writer is to fasten one's rump to the chair and churn out pages, even on days on which one does not feel inspired.
There is also a view that says we all have enough material already… or do after living for at least 15 or 20 years… and that excellence in the craft is a matter of taking whatever experience you happen to have and finding the truth in it, no matter how unexciting it may seem to the outside world. There is the example of Jane Austen, who never married or even had much of a love life… but left a legacy of six great novels based on romantic yearnings and conversations at parties. There are countless other examples such as Little Women, The Member of the Wedding, Anne of Green Gables.
So to be a writer, do you have to go out and "really live" — live the way Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond) — did? That is not so clear.
The character of Hank Moody is suggestive of some famous writers, but there is one who deserves special mention: Charles Bukowski. The debt to this writer as a role-model for Hank Moody is acknowledged in Californication's dialog. Bukowski is mentioned far more than any other real-life model. Hank Moody is referred to as "a poor-man's Bukowski" (which is ironic, because, driving a sports car and living in nice surroundings, Moody is more a Beverly Hills Bukowski). A rock star who wants to collaborate with Moody on a musical (the rocker is slyly-named Atticus Finch) refers to him as "a combination of Bukowski, Baudelaire, and Oscar Wilde all rolled into one." And the love of his life, Karen, sometimes calls him "Bukowski" as a nick-name.
(There are endless in-jokes for writers and followers of pop culture, by the way… in addition to Atticus Finch — a To Kill a Mockingbird allusion — there are characters such as a college dean named Koontz. Dean Koontz? Get it?)
Who was the real Bukowski? He was an alcoholic womanizer who died in 1994, lived in Los Angeles, and wrote gritty, realistic, autobiographical fiction. Except for the time frame, all those things apply to Hank Moody. As with Moody, his career was not John Grisham's or Steven King's. Bukowski did not write for the masses. He was a "niche" or "cult" writer… the sort of writer whom most people haven't heard about but the smart people have discovered. To read Bukowski is to feel you've joined a secret club, a club that most people aren't smart, hip, or wise enough to join.
Hank Moody is portrayed as this kind of writer. In backstory to the series, he wrote a book called "God Hates us All," which was a critical success but not a bestseller, until Hollywood discovered his work and made it into a film ultimately renamed "A Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Even here, the allusion to Bukowski is unmistakable: A 1987 movie, based on Bukowski's writings, is called Crazy Love.
Bukowski, though a life-long resident of Los Angeles, hated Hollywood and everything it stood for. Likewise, Hank Moody hates the people who've taken his existentialist, gritty autobiographical novel and turned it into a sappy love story.
If there's one thing that signifies the connection beyond all doubt, it's the name. "Charles Bukowski" was what Bukowski wrote under, but his real name was Henry Charles Bukowski. He put his middle name on manuscripts, perhaps because he hated his father so much, he didn't want to be identified professionally as "Henry Jr." He didn't want Henry Senior to be able to bask in reflected glory. But in his daily life, everyone referred to the writer as "Henry," or more often, "Hank."
Charles Bukowski was really Hank Bukowski.
How close is Hank Moody, really, to Hank Bukowski? Reading Bukowski reveals a difference, and shows that Showtime's writers — though clever — have created a warmed-over, Hollywood-friendly version of Bukowski in the character of Hank Moody.
In the voice-over narrations, Moody is often sentimental, idealistic, romantic. He believes in things like Love, Family, and Fatherhood. The poor guy just can't get those things to work out. He is sometimes a victim. His great love, Karen (the fetching Natasha McElhone) is more or less in love with him and expresses extreme jealousy as she watches him bed one beauty after another… and yet he keeps saying that she merely needs to make a commitment to him for him to do likewise. We are led to believe that he would keep his word. He tries a few times to marry her. So what's her problem? This goes on season after season.
But the real Hank Bukowski (that is, Charles Bukowski) was cut from a different cloth.
To read Bukowski is to read a man in whom all traces of idealism, sentiment, and sentimentality have died. He came by his nihilism and cynicism honestly. He was beaten every night by his father, whom he hated, until he was big enough to give the old man a bloody nose. Unlike Hank Moody, who is portrayed by the relatively attractive Duchovny, Bukowski was crippled in his youth by a severe case of acne that left him scarred and pock-marked for life. That might not have been so bad, except that it combined with a bulbous nose to make him one of the homeliest people anyone had ever seen. Ironically, until he was middle-aged, the only thing notable about his love life was his lack of one… except when he could find women who were really, really drunk or took pity on him.
He had no money either, living the the life of an L.A. resident who never knew its stars or its film industry but only its lower-class streets and low-rent bars. He dashed out poetry when he wasn't drinking or doing odd jobs, but literary success eluded him until he was 50. Finally, he made a little money writing… which was good, because otherwise, he would have had to keep working at the post office — a job he hated so much one imagines that, without literary success, he might have eventually blown his brains out. Finally, he started to get a following at the poetry readings he gave.
And then something strange happened. He started to get poetry groupies — young women who read his work and approached him after the readings. He was the ugliest man you'd ever seen, and yet once he began talking, people began to forget that fact. Suddenly this Ugly American had more women than he could handle. Amazingly, they chased him, while he just sat back and enoyed it.
At least Hank Moody, as played by David Duchovny, seems to genuinely like women and that is shown to be a major key to his success with them. In contrast, it's hard to see that Bukowski really liked anyone all that much. He claimed he was happiest when no-one was around. Women turned out to be a convenient source of adulation and recreation. But he had no great love, or claimed not to.
What made Bukowski so interesting when he talked or wrote? He was not charming in the ordinary sense. He was often boorish… that is to say, rude. And he was not so clever as, say, Lewis Carroll or Shakespeare.
But he was scathingly honest. Once you give up all hope that life should be harmonious, happy, or endearing, it enables you to say things that no one else does… things that other people might be thinking in the back of their minds but never dare to say. And this, for the rest of us, can be a kind of catharsis.
Bukowksi's writing might be summed up as follows: Life for most of us is a steaming pile of horse manure. But hey, did you ever expect it to be otherwise?
Of the thousands of college students currently enrolled in creative writing courses, it's safe to say that a large percentage of them want to forge a career like Bukowski's, to write in his style. I have seen manuscripts that are nihilistic and determined to shock, that spew a series of four-letter words and describe horrendous incidents, all in an attempt to tell us that life is horrible, empty, and pointless. These writers try to dazzle us sometimes with how many dirty words they can type.
But mostly, these writers lack some of the essential qualities Bukowski had. There was above all his sense of humor. If you listen to his poetry readings on youtube, you'll hear people in the audience rolling on the floor with laughter. You can see his sense of the absurd in stories such as "Life in a Texas Whorehouse," in which he describes traveling across the country with so little money that he stayed over night in a brothel — because they charged him only $5. Some of the dialog goes like this:
"What do you do?" she asked.
"I'm a writer."
"Oh, how nice! Where've you been published?"
"I haven't been published."
"Then, in a way, you're not a writer."
"That's right, and I'm living in a whorehouse."
Bukowski had something that characterizes nearly all first-rate writers: an eye for detail, an ability to note the small, quirky things that hack writers miss. Finally, in his poetry, he understood parallelism: repeating a phrase over and over but with endless variation — a tactic employed by Shakespeare.
Bukowski always had the same advice for aspiring writers: Don't do it — unless of course you can't help it. Otherwise, don't even try. The words "Don't try" are the epithet on his grave stone, and he was talking about writing.
And he should know, because it took him many years to get past the rejection slips. Rejection was no doubt painful to the young Bukowski. His secret strength may have been to accept the pain and work through it, because he had learned very early on to expect life to be painful. That may have been his secret strength. What's one more rejection slip when everything else in life is so awful, a piece of paper can't make it any worse?
And yet, without the literary success that he eventually achieved, he would have had nothing at all — nothing except that job at the post office he couldn't stand. Personally, I suspect that he greatly enjoyed being a writer, as it eventually gave him every good thing in life. But why encourage the competition?