David Duchovny returns as playboy author Hank Moody on Californication tonight. How does the fourth season of Showtime’s opus to excess start? Read on to find out.

After three years of sincerely trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his girlfriend and daughter, Hank reached a low point in Season 3’s finale over a year ago. Arrested after assaulting a police officer with dwindling hope of reuniting with Karen and Becca, the author emerges from jail in “Exile on Main St.” with little remorse and even less tact. As he tries to hold his career together after his scandalous and now public affair with a manipulative underage author, Hank and Charlie negotiate for the screenwriter position of the book that Mia stole from him in season one. At the same time, the two try to beat the rap and make amends to their significant others. They don’t try very hard.

The appeal of Californication lies in its brazen and unapologetic approach to money, sex and drugs on the West Coast. There’s plenty of that in the fourth season premiere: Hank begins indulging his vices mere moments after leaving jail, while simultaneously proclaiming his love and devotion for his estranged girlfriend and daughter. Fans tuning in for the show’s quick wit and brazen dialogue won’t be disappointed as Hank and Charlie, along with seemingly everyone in the movie business, rattle off as if they’re swearing on commission. The cable-only dialogue is enjoyable, and after the extended melodrama of the latter half of season 3 it’s good to see the writers returning to one of the series’ hallmarks. There’s also plenty of visual candy on display for those who want it – of Duchovny and his bedfellows.

Throughout the episode Hank continues to speak of his noble intentions while charging headlong into the habits and situations that made them leave in the first place. For example, Karen spares just enough time to Hank to explain her revulsion at his relationship with a then-16-year-old Mia. The girl had intentionally concealed her age, so at the time Hank wasn’t guilty of much more than an overactive libido and extremely poor judgement. But by the time the episode ends we once again see him bedding a girl half his age mere moments after appealing to her – and the audience – that he just wants his family back. For a brilliant writer, Hank seems to have a remarkably dim appreciation of cause and effect.

Hank treads water just above personal ruin and far below his own potential. While it certainly makes for a believable character, I take issue with the fact that the show expects us to sympathize with him. We’ve seen Hank make the same mistakes for years, topping himself in almost every episode. The series began with Hank as a talented man trying to overcome his own shortcomings and the obstacles others place in front of him. But now Hank is four years older and apparently none the wiser, and all the problems he faces at the beginning of the fourth season are of his own making. Why should the audience continue to care about a man who refuses to better himself? At this point, the show is simply presenting us with Hank’s (admittedly enjoyable) character traits and letting Duchovny loose in Los Angeles.

There’s no more character development to be found in the series’ lead – it’s time to either introduce a game-changing element or give us a look at the other players. Sasha, the actress hoping to play Mia’s role in her book’s movie adaptation, may fit the bill. She’s hopelessly infatuated with Hank, even as he explains that his heart lies elsewhere. She goes so far as to mimic the book’s tagline (and Hank’s own life) in an attempt to endear him to her. When Hank inevitably breaks her trust, be it with his estranged family or someone new, there should be some good drama to be had. Look for Sasha to play an increasing part in the coming season.

Charlie comes off as more annoying than endearing as he tries to fix Hank’s life while commiserating on his own misfortunes. The attorney he hires makes for some great dialogue, and since women are powerless to resist Hank in Californication, it’s almost certain that she’ll be an intimate part of this season’s plot. Karen and Becca, the characters I do feel sympathy for, are almost completely absent. While they may finally be gone from Hank’s life, it would have been nice to see more of their reactions to his continually collapsing situation.

Californication is as raunchy as it ever was as it begins its fourth year. The adult-only themes and humor are still enjoyable, but if the main character continues his unapologetic slide downwards, it’s hard to see how the plot will stay compelling.

Californication premieres tonight at 9:00 PM on Showtime.