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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hank Moody, Samantha Jones and How We View Narcissistic Characters on TV

Did you know that Sunday was the series finale of Californication? Yeah, I didn't either, and I've been waiting for the seventh season to begin like a ding dong. (Where were all the promotions for it? Did I miss ALL of them?) As it turns out, this entire seventh season was the best kept secret because many people didn't care about were unaware of it. As someone who jumped on board the series super late (I just started watching it this year), I'm still basking in the Californication binge watch haze (despite the fact that the quality of the show has consistently declined throughout its run). Why? There is something refreshing about a show that at its strongest is a romantic comedy from a male perspective.

Yes, the show in which its lead character freebases sex like it's going out of style, often treats women like darts on a score card, and merely dabbles in occasional employment actually says a lot about a certain type of male trope that is often berated in think pieces but continues to fascinate viewers. The show's protagonist, full-time playboy and part-time/seasonal writer Hank Moody (David Duchovny), is simultaneously a narcissistic wet dream and an interesting look at a man redefining the sex, drugs and rock & roll era for the aging bachelor of the '00s. He sloppily navigates his love life through inebriated lenses. It's not always a pleasant watch, but there is nuance in the fine print.

While Hank has several cringe-worthy quirks, and revels in more than a few jokes that have been run into the ground (for some reason Hank seems to think he inhabits the body of an endowed black man--a shtick that's never been particularity funny), I still appreciate the pseudo tortured scribe of such mild-sellers like "F*&king and Punching." He's arrogant, completely unreliable (but he seems to be working on that during the final season) and is in no danger of winning any "Father of the Year" awards. But, like Jon Hamm's Don Draper, Ed O'Neill's Al Bundy and Sherman Hemsley's George Jefferson who've come before him, he's genuine, unapologetically so.

It's a hard personality to swallow, seeming as the idea of likable characters are more often considered preferable characters in this sometimes flaky pop culture age. But we still talk about Al Bundy and George Jefferson, and I'll bet we'll be talking about Don Draper and Hank Moody years from now. They represent the characters we love to hate--insufferable to be around, while also fiercely protective of those they love as they drop random bouts of wisdom that actually make us think. Sometimes it's not really what they're saying that is bothersome, but how they're saying it. Finesse has never been these characters' strengths, but you're never at a loss for their meaning. For instance, did Hank really have to be so hard on his daughter's (Madeleine Martin) first manuscript of her memoir? No, but he did save her from inevitably succumbing to a harsh New York Times review of her book. Similarly, Hank once unceremoniously kicked long-tme pal and business partner Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler) to the curb after he signed his daughter's no-good boyfriend, in a move to make a simple point--loyal between friends trumps business.

Skewed morals and using sex as sport isn't limited to male characters, but it seems to be only referred to as male-specific. But what about Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), Sex and the City's sex-hungry PR exec who had every man in New York City on speed dial? Have you ever wondered whether the show would have been different had it been centered around her life instead of the slightly more morally accepted Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker)? Would we be able to handle non-stop, sexually fluid dialogue from the perspective of a woman whose power was propelled by it?

If you think about it, Samantha was Hank Moody before Hank Moody became Hank Moody--she said what she wanted, did who and what she wanted and also hid the same insecurity that often dwells in self-important creative types. She too was not a perky 20-something-year-old woman, but like Hank she owned her sex appeal. They might have been on opposite coasts, but they could have easily been separated at birth. One room couldn't have held both them and their inflated egos.

Unlikable characters today tend to be received in one of two ways: we passionately hate-watch them, or we defend them to the core, no matter how awful they become. And if they're really special, like in the case of Breaking Bad, our feelings toward them will evolve as the show progresses. But what is it that we're really hating--these characters or the real people and themes they represent?


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