You’d think I’d be irritated by it.
You’d think that Little Miss Sex-Positive Culture Critic would be foaming at the mouth. Another goddamn pop-culture depiction of promiscuity and casual sex as a sign of immaturity and instability and low self-esteem. You’d think I’d have my boilerplate rant all ready to go.
But I’m not. I don’t. I’ve only seen one episode of “Californication” so far — but so far I love it. And I’m dying to see more.
Quick precis, for those who haven’t seen it: “Californication” is a new series on Showtime, starring David Duchovny as Hank, a messed-up writer in Los Angeles with writer’s block, a divorce he’s unhappy about, a whole passel of emotional problems, and a good book that got turned into a lousy movie. He has a passive, bemused, almost happy-go-lucky attitude about the life that’s going down the toiletâŠ and he deals with, or doesn’t deal with, his despair and fucked-up-edness with casual, wildly promiscuous sex.
Now, I’ve definitely had a bellyful of the “casual promiscuous sex as sign of emotional problems” trope. I’ve seen it dozens, maybe even hundreds of times, and a big part of me never wants to see it again.
But I’m cutting “Californication” a whole lot of slack. It’s smart, and it’s funny… and most importantly, it’s obviously trying to be true. And it’s obviously trying to be true, not just about life in general, but about sex in particular.
I was pretty much sold in the first five minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show that featured, in the first five minutes of the first scene of the premiere episode, a conversation about the clit. Where it is; where it isn’t, how to find it; what to do about men who can’t find it. That sort of thing. (Oh, they probably talked about it on “Sex in the City.” I’m guessing: I never made it through more than two episodes of that damn show. But “Californication” makes the glib, smirking fakitude of “Sex in the City” look like… well, glib, smirking fakitude. It puts it to shame.)
And I’ve definitely never seen a TV show with a conversation about the clit that was anywhere near this funny. I love the moment where Hank and the woman he’s going down on are about to be caught by her lousy-lover husband, and he says, “Well, maybe I should hide under your clit. He’ll never find me there.” (And I love even more the scene where he gives the enraged husband a lesson on female sexual anatomy.)
It just gets better from there. I’m tempted to tell you all the good bits, all the funny and freaky and trenchant sexual moments. I’m tempted to describe all the scenes where Hank’s sexual passivity, sexual vengefulness, and honest desire for sexual pleasure and connection, come crashing together in a snarky, detached emotional mosh pit. I’m tempted to describe how he uses both his fame and his self-deprecation about his fame to get women to tumble into bed with him. I’m tempted to describe his defensive unease about his daughter’s emerging sexuality, and thus her emergence into a world full of asshole men like him.
But I don’t want to spoil it for you. I’ll leave it at this so I can move on: This is a TV show that is intelligent about sex, funny about sex, perceptive about sex… and, as far as I can tell, trying really hard to be true about sex.
Which brings me back to the whole sex-positive thing.
I’m not an idiot. I get that drama requires conflict, and a TV show about a casually promiscuous guy who’s overall pretty happy with his life and doesn’t have any real problems would make for some profoundly boring drama. And I’m not an idiot, Part 2: I get that sex is complicated and messy and irrational, and that people don’t always handle it very well. As much as I hate the narrow, luridly moralistic vision of sex that pop culture usually hands us, I’m not looking for sex-positive propaganda either.
Of course I’d like to see more genuinely positive images of sex in popular culture. But much more importantly, I’d like to see more sexual truth in popular culture. Sex-positivity isn’t about being a cheerleader for sex, all sex, all the time. Sex-positivity is about seeing sex as an essential part of human life: as diverse as the human race, as ecstatic and sad and absurd as the people who are doing it.
And that’s exactly what “Californication” does.
At least in the first episode. I can’t wait to see more.