It’s that time of year again, when David Duchovny brings Californication back to Showtime, proving once again that he’s about as likely to release us from the struggling clutches of his latest raunchy enterprise as his alter ego, Hank Moody, is to renounce his depraved, clichéd existence as a jaded, yet enormously successful novelist living in the big city.

This time Duchovny-as-Hank enters stage right almost three years after fleeing Los Angeles and his lady love, Karen (Natascha McElhone), in the Season Four finale at the behest of his daughter, Becca (Madeline Martin). He’s been in New York trying to “keep it simple” vis-à-vis the ladies, despite their repeated, overwhelming desires to land him. But a falling out with his one-dimensional girlfriend sends him packing to the West Coast, where best friend and literary agent Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler) is ready to present him with a new moneymaking endeavor that involves guest star RZA. Return to California Hank must, mainly because Manhatt-opulation just doesn’t sing as a title, but also because he’s desperately afraid of the wrath he’ll face from his most recent woman scorned.

While inter-season time passage rarely works well, its invocation on Californication is almost a relief, transparency aside. The lapse serves a number of purposes: it introduces new characters who could potentially launch fun subplots, but — let's face it — will probably just reveal how desperately the show is grasping at straws (example: a son, already two-and-a-half, for Charlie and Marcy); it reminds us to regard certain previously underdeveloped characters as important, since they’re still around (example: Richard, Karen’s outspoken, quick-witted new boyfriend, played by Jason Beghe); it saves time in the makeup trailer for Duchovny; it explains that Becca, after coming out on the other side of an awkward adolescence, will tackle more mature plot-lines that are destined to hold a mirror up to Hanks’s own womanizing ways, allowing him to be oh-so-charmingly hypocritical when he inevitably takes the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do stance.

After establishing these plot points, featuring some harmless flirtation, showing Hank banter back and forth with the kind of silver-tongued grandiosity so few can sustain in real life, and filling up about half of the episode with forced backstory, the team actually delivers a few genuine chuckles that inspire a sliver of hope for the desperately optimistic. Hank’s meeting with RZA’s character, Samurai Apocalypse, is charmingly satirical, though the Wu Tanger’s performance is lackluster. A bookstore scene that shows Hank’s new novel (entitled — guess what — Californication) displayed beside Dante’s The Divine Comedy is worth a smirk for its subtlety. And when Hank and Karen decide to break bread with their daughter’s pompous boyfriend, one is almost reminded of the show's heyday, when its inspired moments amounted to more than gratuitous depictions of unappealing sex and unbelievable, overwritten dialogue.

The sex, too, seems neither as gratuitous nor unappealing as it so recently has been. While there are still several requisite scenes intended for humor, most of the latter half of the episode is actually dedicated to establishing plotlines, as if somebody told the Californication team that if you use sex as a crutch for lazy writing, people are eventually going to notice. There’s a reason most porn doesn’t have a plot, and that’s perfectly fine for porn. But isn’t it time we expect a little bit more from a network the stature of Showtime?

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