After seven long years of “fucking and punching,” the final season of Showtime’s raunchy half-hour dramedy Californication is upon us. If you’re late to the party, the series follows the exploits of Hank Moody, a hard-drinking, unrepentant womanizer who, when not busy bedding nearly every female character who crosses the screen, also happens to author allegedly brilliant novels. Played by real-life recovering sex addict David Duchovny, Hank is the perfect daydream character for cisgendered English majors and wannabe writers the blogosphere over. Over the past 70-some episodes, Hank’s fucked his way through a casting call sheet that includes models, actresses, college professors, college students, high school students, nuns, lawyers, prostitutes and, every once in a while, the love of his life and mother of his child, Karen.
When Moody’s daughter, Becca, teases her father for being a “poor man’s Bukowski," what she’s really calling him is a rich man’s imitation.
While the concept of the self-destructive, hard-drinking male writer is nothing new (see: just about every dudely author of the early 20th) one degenerate in particular served as the inspiration for the “cooler” aspects of Hank’s tragically flawed, sex-obsessed persona: Charles Bukowski. Everything from Hank’s boozing to his womanizing to his adopted hometown of Los Angeles to his very name (Henry “Hank” Chinaski was Buk’s longtime alter ego) are not-so-subtly lifted from the torrid pages of the Bukowski catalogue. (The show acknowledges this debt with shots of the characters handling Bukowski’s books.)
The grit and grime of novels like Women, Factotum, and Post Office paint a portrait of a disgusting, miserable, dirty old man whose only salvation in life is the written word. With Duchovny, viewers get a handsome, charming asshole with a cute goth daughter and a bald literary-agent-cum-sidekick named Charlie Runkle.
Californication is entertaining to watch (pretend season six’s rock opera motif didn’t happen), but it’s tough to shake the feeling that Bukowski is looking up at us from hell, grimacing at the show’s producers for dragging his name through something this neat and tidy. The series is risqué by TV standards, but much of what has made Californication so marketable thus far—the pithy dialogue, the attractiveness of its cast, the heart-warming family moments scattered across the series—are the kind of grossness that had no place in Bukowski’s work. In Buk’s world “love is a dog from hell,” and the only thing the writer despised more than overwrought sentimentality was when the bottle ran dry.
When Moody’s daughter, Becca, teases her father for being a “poor man’s Bukowski” during the episode “Lawyers, Guns and Money” from season four, what she’s really calling him is a rich man’s imitation. The character of Henry Chinaski lived in the gutters of skid row, not a bachelor pad in Beverly Hills. He fought bums in the back alleys of dive bars, not his daughter’s shaggy-haired boyfriends at cocktail parties. He broke the legs off his bed during sex with 300-pound prostitutes, not skinny models. Bukowski’s poetry and prose made reference to jazz and classical music, not something as corny as a 15-year-old Red Hot Chili Peppers song. The rampant hedonism of Los Angeles was his inspiration, not a lame excuse for writer’s block.
This is not to say that Duchovny and the show’s creator, Tom Kapinos, didn’t get anything right. Aspects of the Hank Moody story do indeed mesh with the lore of Bukowski’s life, especially the love hate/relationship the late writer seemed to have with the publishing world and the movie business.
The novel Hollywood chronicles Bukowski’s utter disdain for the film industry as he struggles with writing the movie Barfly, and there’s shades of that in Moody’s forays into screenwriting in Californication. During season one, Hank punches a director in the dick for turning his book God Hates Us All into a romantic comedy titled A Crazy Little Thing Called Love. (A reference to the Belgian film Crazy Love that Bukowski co-wrote, perhaps?) Later, he ruins production of a movie he’s working on called Santa Monica Cop by sleeping with (surprise) the star’s girl.
If past storylines are any indication, Hank’s current attempt at TV writing this season will be equally disastrous. Moody has never been very good at kissing ass in order to turn a profit, and in the end neither was Bukowski.
The irony here, of course, is that while Hank Moody was furious over a commercially successful film like A Crazy Little Thing Called Love cheapening his serious work of art, that’s essentially what Californication has been doing to the memory of Charles Bukowski for the last seven years.