Every year, there are literally dozens of new shows premiered in the vast television universe — broadcast, basic cable and the premium pay-per-view channels. Critics meant to cover these things can only choose from a fraction of them. What motivates their decision tells you more about them than it does the shows.
It can be that a network, sensing a hit, pours its formidable resources into an intense marketing campaign and captures their attention. It can be a Big Name associated with the new release that commands coverage. In some cases, and I’m afraid in far too few cases, the new show is, in fact, a good one and worthy of a critic’s professional attention.
But those are the exceptions. What critics focus on, as an imperative, are those programs that are defined as cutting edge, the ones that break new ground — especially if they’re salacious. And when it stars a known entity, it’s a lock for a review.
So it comes as no surprise that the Showtime network’s new "Californication" series has everyone’s attention. It stars David Duchovny (of "X-Files" fame), who plays Hank Moody, a frustrated writer with self-esteem issues who is obsessed with having casual sex. That’s it. That’s all there is to the plot line of this "comedy."
Most critics don’t like it. The New York Times calls it "misogynist … a dark comedy (that) is not nearly dark or funny enough." It suggests the "depictions of sex are frequent and graphic, which may offend some viewers but will undoubtedly draw many more." The Los Angeles Times savages it for lacking "meaning or reason. … ‘Californication’ makes us want to set fire to our hair and run screaming into the street."
Some critics are lukewarm. Variety labels it "watchable but not fully arousing," but does praise it for "a half-dozen (bared breasts) in the pilot, which isn’t a bad bared-breast-per-minute ratio." USA Today mentions the sex but is non-judgmental.
A few critics are raving. Listen to tax-payer funded NPR and its "Fresh Air" critic, and you’ll hear a lengthy, gushing report calling the series "rich … so good … one of the best shows of the year … great summer programming." Newsday opines that "the star’s charisma, the droll dialogue, snappy timing and fleetly incisive work from guest performers create a funny, revealing and painfully true moment of the type in which the pilot revels." It really likes the sex, too, immediately telling us the "first scene has a nun kneeling before Duchovny in church."
Yes, a nun. Let me walk you through that scene. Better yet, I’ll have another kind of critic — the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights — do this for you.
"The opening scene of the pilot shows Hank entering a Catholic Church, smoking a cigarette. He drops the butt in the holy water font, walks up to the altar and begins a conversation with Jesus on the crucifix. A nun approaches him, and Hank begins telling her about his writer’s block in foul language. The nun responds that she would normally tell him to say the Lord’s Prayer as penance for his cursing. In this case, however, she decides to offer him oral sex. Hank puts up his hand to block Jesus’ view as the nun begins to perform the act. At this point, he wakes up with another woman, revealing the church scene to be merely a dream."
The dialogue in this scene is equally graphic, with both the writer and the nun dropping obscenities in front of the altar with wild abandon. After he states he’s having a crisis of faith, she responds, "Well, normally I would suggest a bunch of ‘Our Fathers’ or a couple of ‘Hail Marys.’ But I don’t think that’s going to get it done. What about a (oral sex)?"
That’s what passes for "droll dialogue" that creates "a funny, revealing and painfully true moment" at Newsday. That’s the kind of scene that makes "Californication" "one of the best shows of the year" in the eyes of NPR.
But all those other critics are no better, really. Not a one of them condemned or — and with the exception of Newsday — even mentioned this blatant display of anti-Christian bigotry, insulting to the core the Catholic Church. There simply isn’t anything offensive enough here to warrant a television critic’s attention.
Which is why these television reviews say more about the critics than the shows they are critiquing.