‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“But I need you to know that I started with the best of intentions. I guess I just wanted them all to see it. The thing that makes them special. I guess that’s all anybody wants is to be seen. To be recognized.”
Californication gets a bad rap, and only some of that is warranted. The series began as a promising show that knew how to properly use this lothario version of David Duchovony properly. Unfortunately, like many of Showtime’s series, it wasn’t cut loose early enough and ran much longer than it should have (I’m looking at you too, Weeds, Dexter, and presumably Homeland), which led to a good deal of repetition and messy, reductive plotlines filling up the series’ final seasons. In spite of that, there was a formidable core to Californication when it began, and one of the episodes that truly accentuates how articulate Californication could be at times is the third season’s “The Apartment.”
Part of what makes “The Apartment” so strong is that it’s pulling right from Billy Wilder’s incredible film, The Apartment, a film that looks at a fractured, lonely, lost man conveyed perfectly through Jack Lemmon. Californication certainly isn’t a stranger to taking famous stories or plotlines and re-appropriating them as it sees fit. This was a show that turned their entire second season into a Great Gatsby allegory, after all. There’s plenty of life behind this “The Apartment” plan though, simply because Moody really is in the same place that Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter is in the picture. The episode builds upon this strong core idea, but then starts letting loose as Moody’s apartment soon begins to feel like a funhouse or clown car.
Another main interest of “The Apartment” is looking at Hank’s indiscretions as well as why women are so drawn to him, and what the underlying effects of all of that are, which is certainly a rich area to get into. While heavily pulling from Wilder’s classic 1960 film, this is also probably the most Three’s Company-esque installment of Californication, as the madcap caper quotient is pushed up considerably. Not only that, but this episode looks so silly and campy but is actually steeped in depression and maliciousness (much like Hank himself, it sometimes feels), painting a much more intricate picture than the episode might let on initially.
We check in with Hank following a drunken night with Jackie and two of her stripper friends, as he’s rapidly trying to clean up the wreckage before his daughter comes over (who he currently can’t even track down). Right from the jump it’s clear that this is going to be a very long day for Hank, when suddenly one of Jackie’s friends won’t wake up and might have overdosed. That alone could be the basis of a solid episode, but it’s merely obstacle number one as someone knocks at Hank’s door (a gesture that becomes so perfectly timed that it feels like a beating telltale heart through the whole thing) and things only become messier.
The cascading effect of the episode really works in its favor – especially when a wildcard like Rick Springfield (who’s even spouting lyrics from “Jessie’s Girl”) is one of the renegade elements mixed into Hank’s apartment. It’s clear that Hank is just done with all of this and wants to get out after he’s put out these fires, but people and consequences continually show up at his door. As a bottle episode this one feels a lot different than other ones, as it is ostensibly Hank that is keeping himself bottled up in his apartment, with everything that’s happening being his fault in one way or another. His holding cell very much feels like a purgatory meant for him to atone for his actions and become a better person, which is why it’s so fascinating that an epiphany is not had in any real sense by the end of it. He’s managed to put out his fires (both metaphorical and literal at this point), and being stuck to explain his actions with his daughter is a suitable conclusion that does seem to get through to him (and it’s worth mentioning that now he finally is able to get out of his apartment, but chooses to stay there with Becca now, explaining himself).
Californication is a show that is very capable of interweaving a lot of characters in a single space with rapid dialogue. It’s a strategy that’s worked so well for them and maintains such a frenzied energy that the show has almost resorted to doing a “dinner party” episode every season that grounds the cast and the season’s guest stars into a situation like this and just lets them have fun with each other. Again, “The Apartment” is different because there’s no sense of claustrophobia or even a desire for freedom in these “dinner party” entries, while this feels like torture for Hank.
Tom Kapinos’ script is really a standout and a reminder of what great comedic beats Californication was capable of when it was in its groove. Watching the unconscious body of Jackie’s friend being moved around Hank’s apartment as more people show up is a wonderful visual. The continuous knock at the door and Hank’s kneejerk reaction of “Fuck!” is a great runner, and just watching more and more of Hank’s rooms being filled with his baggage until he’s run out of places to hide people is some very sharp comedy.
It’s of course significant that most of these interruptions that Hank faces are of the romantic nature. Stacy Koons (Peter Gallagher) lays it out pretty clearly by saying, “You obviously have this thing with women, some very strong connection, that no matter what you do, no matter how big of an ass you are, they seem to respond. You’re a goddamn girl whisperer!” Hank is simply trying to leave his apartment as each of his romantic dalliances end up storming into his home and keeping him from leaving.
It’s a big wish fulfillment episode as basically every few minutes a different woman is seen throwing themselves at Hank as he stoically smarms his way through it all. For the majority, this feels like standard Hank regression and him just having a good time, but it’s not until the most important woman in his life – his daughter Becca – enters the apartment, that Hank actually tries to dissect his behavior. He not only explain why he acts how he does, but why these women are so enamored with him in the first place. The episode ends with all of these women and distractions leaving Hank, with him alone with his daughter and the opportunity for honesty (something he’s unable to do with the rest of these women). To actually have some reflection and a deeper meaning in all of this, rather than just a hyperbolized silly episode, is exactly the right approach for an installment like this.
The episode is very concerned with Hank’s romantic decisions and what exactly his relationship is with all of the women in his life. With Jackie he wants to give her the validation that she’s more than just a stripper, he wants Felicia to know that she’s entitled to happiness and fulfillment, and with Jill, he just wants her to respect herself and be confident again.
While Hank has better things to do, his priority here is still making these women know that they are special people and powerful individuals, and while there’s something deeply altruistic about that, it’s also exactly the sort of behavior that gets Hank in trouble and why so many women throw themselves at him. His intentions might be just, but his actions still leave much to be desired. Felicia for instance leaves her husband after her passionate night with Hank, and it’s an act that barely registers for him. It’s nearly sociopathic behavior that while Hank is trying to mind all of his disasters, he’s still flirting and complimenting all of his flings. You could execute the exact same sort of episode here, but with Hank not confined to his home the entire time, and the message would likely be very different and less misogynistic. Here they continually have the opportunity to be getting naked for him as he keeps stringing them along. He’s repeatedly asked if he loves these women and even though he doesn’t, he refuses to say “no” just because he doesn’t want to hurt them.
In that respect, there’s a much darker side here as Hank has to break all of these women who he has previously bolstered, but in spite of the numerous opportunities to do so, he doesn’t. Hank isn’t a realist and he always wants to have his cake and eat it too. By postponing the disappointment to them here, he’s only making things worse. Much like Lemmon’s Baxter in The Apartment, Hank’s dysfunction with women fuels the entire episode, and how his desire to be a “better person” is actually making him a worse one. It forces him to watch all of these grenades go off at once and as he’s left with the fallout in his home. The scene where everyone confronts one another and is together at last is a deeply cringe-worthy scene due to all of the raw nerves that are exposed during it.
Through its run Californication was a very flawed series, but it still had many moments of poignancy and insight into the human condition. “The Apartment” is the show in top form, and while the series would hit a level of diminishing returns later on, experiments in form, such as bottle episodes, would often form its strongest entries.