HBO // 2009 // 315 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // June 22nd, 2010
"It's hard to make an indecent living."
HBO has built its programming reputation on series that take viewers behind the scenes of intriguing lifestyles they have no access to in real life. "Huh, I wonder what it's like to be a ________," we ponder -- a mobster, a funeral director, a polygamist -- as we tune in to get a taste. Hung purports to continue that tradition with a protagonist who tries his hand at sex work when unable to make ends meet, giving viewers a perspective on life as a gigolo. Because it is a comedy, though (a somewhat unlikely mode for this hard luck story), and because its focus is distributed among a number of other non-gigolo characters, the show's appeal is hardly that of a gritty, realistic look at the sex industry.
Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane, The Punisher) is entering middle age and adjusting rather poorly. An unwise mortgage, a messy divorce, and a house fire have left him sleeping alone in a backyard tent in Detroit, missing his teenage kids Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee, As the Bell Rings) and Damon (Charlie Saxton, Twelve). They've gone to live with Ray's ex, Jessica (Anne Heche, Psycho (1998)), whose second marriage came with a big ol' house and lots of disposable income. Ray doesn't have any of that -- the salary he earns as a high school basketball coach and history teacher won't even cover his property taxes and urgent home repairs. To supplement his income, he decides to market his most valuable asset: his huge penis. Clueless about how to do so, he finds himself a pimp. Like all the best pimps, Tanya (Jane Adams, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is a soft-spoken, vegetarian, struggling poetess.
Spoiler Alert! I'll be discussing plot points through the end of the first season.
This series premiere does all of the set-up described above: Ray's house burns, Ray loses kids, Ray seeks money, Ray finds pimp.
Ray's internet search terms: "how to make money with a large penis"
* "Great Sausage" or "Can I Call You Dick?"
Tanya pitches her marketing plan for their new business, Happiness Consultants, to Ray. Hoping a well-connected friend of hers, Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff, Mad Men), will recommend Ray to her rich clients, Tanya lets Lenore take him for a test drive.
Lenore: "Will he lick my ass?"
Tanya: "Can I get back to you on that?"
* "Strange Friends" or "The Truth Is, You're Sexy"
In the fallout from Ray's appointment with Lenore, Tanya works hard to redeem herself and recover his stolen wallet. Back at home (the tent), Ray pisses off his overly litigious neighbor -- with piss.
Tanya: "You were right. I've been a terrible pimp."
* "The Pickle Jar" or "Twice as Fat"
After some hesitation, Ray takes on his first slate of sex clients, but the first is not as hot as he'd prefer (duh!). A family night at the drive-in turns dramatic when Damon tries to fight Darby's boyfriend.
Nervous Client: "I wouldn't mind looking at your penis."
* "Do It, Monkey!"
While Jessica faces money troubles after her husband's stock market losses, Ray is faced with the daunting prospect of using his brain rather than his dick to succeed with a client, Jemma, who seems to like mind games.
Ray, to Jemma: "You want a do-over?"
* "Doris Is Dead" or "Are We Rich or Are We Poor?"
Jemma pays Ray for a bizarre appointment -- at couples therapy. All of the women in Ray's life, plus Damon, show up to watch him coach his basketball team, unfortunately during the worst losing streak he's ever faced.
Ray: "What do you think I am, a whore?"
* "The Rita Flower" or "The Indelible Stench"
Everyone's having sex that they don't expect to be paid for: Tanya with a sensitive guy she met at a bar, and Ray with Jemma, whom he wants to turn into his real girlfriend. Sensitive guy also tries to help Tanya through her writer's block by making her confront her disapproving mother.
Neighbor: "Shit, Ray. That is one beautiful penis."
* "Thith Ith a Prothetic" or "You Cum Just Right"
Ray has paid sex with a horny coworker of Tanya's, and then gets paid for a very different and unexpected experience by Jemma.
Guy in Bar: "I fuckin' hate you, [Ray] Drecker! I've hated you since 1981."
Ray Drecker: "Me, too."
* "This Is America" or "Fifty Bucks"
Tanya and Lenore have divergent instructions for Ray as his gigolo business seems to be drying up: Tanya says lower his price, and Lenore says raise it.
Tanya, trying to recruit a client for Ray: "I know the economy is collapsing, but when you look back at your life do you really want to say 'Damn it! I was such a fuddy-duddy. I never once paid for sex!' Not even once?"
* "A Dick and a Dream" or "Fight the Honey"
Ray's financial outlook darkens as he's laid off from his coaching/teaching job, prompting him to get more aggressive with his sex work. To Tanya's dismay, he allows Lenore to join their business as Tanya's co-pimp, but Lenore sets him up with a client he's not prepared to service.
Tanya, on Ray's proposal to add Lenore to their business duo: "You ever been in a threesome? Every one I've ever been in the other two people screw while all I do is bring them water."
Hung is a series that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It wants the rep of a raunchy sex comedy, as implied by its title and marketing, but it also wants to be serious and heartwarming -- perhaps even more so than it wants to be sexy and funny. As we Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Friday Night Lights fans know, shows that promise one thing and then deliver something different often have a tough road ahead of them, even if that "different" thing is better than what viewers had been led to expect. But where Buffy smoothly deepens the silliness of a superficial cheerleader slaying vampires, and where Friday Night Lights gets us off the football field to demonstrate how the game shapes the lives of great characters, Hung seems less comfortable with its proverbial split personality. For what's billed as a comedy and has the accompanying half-hour episode length, the show doesn't have enough laugh out loud moments, and its humor does not seem fully integrated with its drama.
Those shortcomings in execution are a shame, because parts of the premise are great: a look at American lives weathering this recession, but with some lightness and resilience rather than pure gloom and doom. Indeed, one of this first season's greatest strengths is its subtle but consistent attention to our economic woes. These enter the plot through references to Ray's adjustable rate mortgage, Jessica's husband's stock market losses, job losses at Ray's public high school, or little details like a going-out-of-business sign in a background shop window. When the writers hit these notes more loudly, they still connect well, as in the series' opening montage of burnt-out buildings and demolition -- put together beautifully by director Alexander Payne (Election). Ray narrates: "Everything's falling apart. And it all starts right here in Detroit, the headwaters of a river of failure."
In this river of failure, Ray and Tanya are struggling against the current, but their unlikely team-up and their cute naiveté in such a potentially seedy business make their struggle appealing rather than depressing. The casting of these leads is what keeps the series afloat, despite the problems with tone and the underwhelming comedy mentioned above. As Ray, Thomas Jane looks the part for sure -- though I can't speak to whether he's hung, since we never see the member in question. As co-creator Colette Burson puts it in the special features, he's like the most handsome guy you would plausibly encounter in your actual workplace. Though he sometimes seems to be working a little too hard at being macho, being funny, or being suave, Thomas Jane does a very solid job with a challenging role, and is especially good at playing down-and-out in a sympathetic way.
The real casting treasure, though, is Jane Adams as Tanya. On paper, "vegetarian poetess" sounds like a person that has a good chance of being insufferable in real life and would certainly be insufferable in the hands of writers on a TV comedy. But through some combination of the writers' restraint and Adams' charisma, Tanya becomes a very real and very likeable character. Like Thomas Jane, she looks the part perfectly: like an actual normal-looking person, rather than a super-hot Hollywood actress trying to play a normal-looking person. I live in Berkeley, Calif. -- which is teeming with vegetarian poetesses -- and I could easily imagine Tanya walking down the street here and fitting in. Adams also provides by far the most laughs of the cast, from her spazzy little angry dance when she meets Ray on a basketball court to her fumbling attempts to recruit clients. The show leans heavily on the humor of a woman like this referring to herself as a pimp, but Adams' delivery keeps these oft-used lines funny every single time.
Ray and Jessica's kids are also well-cast and interesting characters, but I didn't feel that way about Jessica herself. Too much time of this short 10-episode season was spent trying to get beneath the surface of this shallow, rich woman, and the payoff just wasn't really there.
In rendering the life of a gigolo in Detroit, the series is hit or miss. Now, what I don't know about being a gigolo in Detroit could fill a warehouse, but I had a few gripes about realism. First, it seems that it would be difficult to be a male sex worker without any male clients -- since it's the fellas and not the ladies who are usually looking to pay a guy for being hung. Obviously, Ray isn't willing to service this crowd, but I was surprised that the issue didn't even come up. Second, there are a surprising number of very hot women willing to pay Ray for sex. Can't hot women looking for sex usually find it for free? I know the show justifies this point through the ease and safety of going through their Ray and Tanya's service, as well as the guarantee of a very big dick, but I would expect clients who looked like the older and heavyset Molly to be the rule and clients who look like thin and hot blond Jemma to be the exception. In Hung, it's the other way around. On the other hand, some of the sex worker bits are very well done. Ray's gentle seduction of Molly in "The Pickle Jar" is a fantastic single scene, while his multi-episode storyline with Jemma is also impressive and surprising.
As a DVD release, Hung: The Complete First Season is perfectly adequate, though not quite well-endowed. Picture quality satisfies, with the occasional appearance of grain matching the gritty and run-down aura of the setting. The surround track pumps in the dialogue and occasional rock or pop song well. Extras include two making-of featurettes: a 10-minute one on the show in general, and a 7-minute one on the female characters. These include some good insights from cast and crew about the characters and themes, such as executive producer Michael Rosenberg's comment: "Ray's in the stage of waking up from a 20-year nap when the show starts" or co-executive producer Scott Stephen's observation that Ray almost has a "super-hero identity," with his double life. Two cute "personal ads" show Ray and Tanya at her apartment trying to record videos for the Happiness Consultants website and are each about a minute long. Lastly, co-creators Burson and Dmitry Lipkin do three commentary tracks (on episodes 1, 4, and 8), once joined by another writer. The pair are married and the tracks reflect that comfort and familiarity with each other. The most interesting part of their somewhat underwhelming reflections was a discussion of whether/when they will show us Ray's penis. Fans apparently really want to see it, but Burson explains that it's a tough problem because everyone's perfect penis is a little different. She sees it as the "Platonic ideal" of a penis, and thus is hesitant to disrupt that status with a visualization.
Unsure of its comedy/drama priorities and not yet balancing them well, this series nevertheless has good draws from its topical recession themes and strong cast.
Predicting Ray's success, Lenore notes, "Good cock is hard to find." So is a good TV comedy, so Hung may thrive despite its imperfections.
The Happiness Consultants are guilty of all kinds of law-breaking, but Hung escapes conviction. Let's put it on probation and see what the second season holds.
Review content copyright © 2010 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 315 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Personal Ads
* Official Site
* Happiness Consultants