Saturday, March 02, 2013

TV Watch: Saying the long goodbye to "Californication," "House of Lies," and "Enlightened"


Steven Bochco's Murder One (1995-96) may not have had the courage of the convictions of its announced premise, but hey, at least it could be watched.

by Ken

Once upon a time we were told, as I understood it, that we were going to get a TV series that answered the question, what's it like to be one of those high-profile defense attorneys we always see defending high-profile scumbag clients everybody knows are guilty as sin. That sounded like it might have been interesting, though I suspect the truth is that such lawyers aren't much different from the rest of the white-collar world engaged in morally dubious activity, which is to say most of the higher rollers of that world.

In the event, however, what we got was something very different. The show was Steven Bochco's Murder One (1995) was indeed built around a high-price lawyer who defended rich, scummy clients, but he wasn't one of those mob-mouthpiece types I assumed we were going to be seeing. Instead we got that terrific actor Daniel Benzali playing a deeply sensitive lawyer, Teddy Hoffman committed to justice who defended clients he believed to be innocent. At least innocent of the accused crime-- (of, you know, murder one. Heaven knows the people Teddy found himself involved with in the Season 1 case were guilty of just about everything you could think of, or rather everything the show's writers could think of, which dug fairly deep into the manure pile of depravity, or as deep into it as the ABC censors would allow.

I actually enjoyed Season 1 of Murder One, but not a lot of viewers seem to have, and Bochco and ABC undertook every sort of rejiggering -- and then performed a near-total makeover for the surprisingly granted Season 2 reprieve. That season substituted Anthony LaPaglia for Daniel Benzali, but still didn't give us anything like the kind of lawyer -- or clients -- I thought we were going to get.

I bring this up because in last week's kickoff TV Watch post I undertook to try to explain why I finally banished a batch of HBO and Showtime series from my DVR automatic-recording list. I talked last week about HBO's Girls, which for all the hoopla, and for all the talent involved and even the potentially promising elements in place, seemed to me, by the time I slogged through four episodes of Season 2 (still unreeling), to have settled into a groove as a deeply obnoxious and profoundly worthless pile of crap.

I've retrieved my memory of Murder One as a prelude to waving bye-bye to two of the Showtime shows: the long-running Californication and second-season House of Lies, both of which, it occurs to me), sort of fulfill what I took to be the original premise of Murder One, or maybe more.

Bye-bye, Californication!

In the case of Californication, I've stuck with the gang the 20 or 30 seasons-to-date in which angry-rebel writer Hank Moody (David Duchovny) showed, season after season, that yes indeed, for all his attractive qualities, and those of his long-suffering girlfriend or ex-girlfriend Karen (Natascha McElone) and their daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin), Hank remains an irredeemable scumbag.

I know I should be giving the producers credit for their real-world honesty. How tempting it must have been, season by season, to allow Hank to "reform," even a little. But no, a vile scumbag he remains, not just wildly self-destructive but destructive to all the people attached to him. True, he is immersed in the glamorous L.A. world of people who are even more loathsome, but somehow that doesn't make it any better for me. As I wrote last week, what it comes down to is that I don't want these people in my living room, ever again. In the end, after half-watching the opener of the new season (Season 21, ist it? or 31?), I decided I just couldn't go back. No more!

Toodle-oo, House of Lies!

As for House of Lies, it indeed goes beyond even my understanding of the premise of Murder One. We're now in the world of wall-to-wall scumbags. Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) is a star (most of the time) of a high-power firm of so-called management consultants, whose basic job seems to be to hoodwink clients into paying them to "fix" their companies, when all they really seem to offer is delusional scams.

And so here we are, in a world of loathsome, morally repellent people making a living doing loathsome, morally repellent business with (or for, or to) clients who by and large seem to almost deserve what our "heroes" do to them. I've seen the behavior of Marty and his team described as "amoral," but that seems to me just wrong. Their behavior isn't independent of moral considerations; it revels joyfully in blatant im-morality.

What's more, the characters themselves are by and large so repellent that the apparent expectation that I as a viewer involve myself in their existences makes me feel unclean. I have a particular hate for Marty's free-scamming smartypants-scumbag sidekick Clyde (Ben Schwartz), but the idiot-savant cluelessness of the infinitely pathetic Doug (Josh Lawson) isn't much easier to bear. Which leaves th vastly more sympathetic Jeannie (Kristen Bell), who often seems to wish she were a better person. But she isn't.

And these are the "likable" people at their firm. For the others (played by actors in some cases as good as Richard Schiff), I would need a vocabulary that goes beyond "loathsome scumbags." So while I feel sorry for Marty's sexually confused son Roscoe (Donis Leoanrd Jr.), what there really is to feel sorry about is thatmonstrous parents like Marty and his bitch-from-hell ex-wife.

Again, I made a sleep-addled half-effort at watching the Season 2 opener, and then found that I can't, I won't, go back. These people are banished forever from my home. (Naturally Showtime has already announced the go-ahead for a Season 3 of House of Lies.)

Tell your story walking, Enlightened!

Which leaves just HBO's appalling Enlightened. I already wrote last season about my deep misgivings ("HBO's Enlightened makes me cringe almost nonstop, but I'm still watching (or at least recording) it," October 2011), but I did stick it out to the end, hoping some reason would come into focus for continuing to care about the life crisis of airhead Amy (Laura Dern), who seems to think she is reconstructing her life from the ashes of her failed marriage and her lost corporate-stooge existence. And indeed everyone is really, really mean to Amy, including even her mother (played by Laura's real-life mother, the excellent actress Diane Ladd). But it became painfully clear by the end of Season 1 that the origin of all that meanness is Amy herself. Who wouldn't want to be mean to her?

Amy has been through a fiercely expensive rehab treatment in Hawaii, which remains her paradise, but surely we viewers were supposed to notice that her vision of "enlightment" is moronic bullshit. So you might think the idea of the series is to make fun of her bogus New Age-y spirituality. But then what are we to make of her deep revulsion to the evils of the Corportate System, which are all utterly believable, but are still less offensive than the clueless Amy.

As with that other cult favorite Portlandia, mostly I find myself thinking, who exactly is being made fun of? And who is doing the making fun of? Is there any reason to find those people any less repellent than the objects of their "satire"?

The closest thing Enlightened has to a saving grace, for me at least, is Diane Ladd's performance as the put-upon mother. She never sentimentalizes, never tries for cheap sympathy. It's crystal clear that Helen had her life organized in a way that would stultify me but is apparently aces for her -- until she faced her hopeless wreck of a daughter moving back in with her, quite against Helen's wishes. Again, as we got to know them both over the course of Season 1, I came to accept that, while the mother can't be happy about the mess her daughter has made of her life, at some point she has done all she can, and deserves to be left alone.

I can't tell you how relieved I was when I realized I could make the decision to let the whole ragtage crew alone. When I think of shows like Girls and Enlightened, I think of the remark Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner made in response to HBO's summary rejection of his pilot script. Since his days working with David Chase on The Sopranos, Weiner opined, something sure had changed in the network's programming.

Boy, I can't wait till the new season of Mad Men is ready.

(I should note that in response to last week's post, our friend Bil commented that he's richly enjoying both Californication and House of Lies. Perhaps he can offer us some tips on how it's done. Anyway, I freely acknowledge that my response is strictly personal -- the only kind of response I have, after all.)

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At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Mary McCurnin said...

I love the fact that Hank remains an irredeemable scumbag. He makes me feel so much better about myself.

Enlightenment sucks. It is annoying in a bad way. But Girls is annoying in a good way. I will keep watching it because it beats watching Law and Order over and over.

At 11:02 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Hi Ken. Got it, total personal response here as well. These are the ONLY two shows we are hooked on, and miss the Big C.

Second that on Hank Mary. I think there IS definitely some of that comparison of "wow, I turned out better than THAT". I do think that all these (fabricated remember) people ARE redeemable whatever that means as imperfect human beans ourselves.
I AM interested in Hank's daughter's writing career and enjoying his new struggle with her as the mirror for everything he tried young, and in his case still at least attempts older. I like his wife a lot, and thank goddess that I never fell that in love and tried to complete myself with anyone that talented and destructive. At least Hanks's ex has created enough boundaries in her life now that she gets a pretty good horse to ride (my grandfather's H/t :) occasionally and interesting subplots. I DO cringe at the "what's next" but I am hopelessly interested.

House of Lies has a different appeal, as a then and still now consultant, I KNOW people that fit their mold and I have no idea HOW they get up in the mornings and I do have a good idea of what their personal lives are, messy. BUT those are the very difficult high level assignments that only they can really excel at sometimes in super challenging complex situations, and they do know the price that it pays and extracts from whatever higher self image they at least once had. And the psychology and strategies that they employ to deceive clients and perhaps themselves gets pretty intricate. I think they have introduced some interesting moderating subs with Kaan's son and the multi-parenting of his father, ex and friends. I am so rooting for happy endings there but am expecting a lot of pain along the way (necessary in growing up anyway).

Perhaps we should check out Enlightened. I like Dern a lot.
We try to keep our cable soap addictions to TWO so we can still get out and play, and I am not giving up the first two...


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