Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski suspects most women value another body part more—rhymes with "hung," though.
"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.
Facts of the Case
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.
• "Great Sausage" or "Can I Call You Dick?"
• "Strange Friends" or "The Truth Is, You're
• "The Pickle Jar" or "Twice as Fat"
• "Do It, Monkey!"
• "The Rita Flower" or "The Indelible
• "Thith Ith a Prothetic" or "You Cum Just
• "This Is America" or "Fifty Bucks"
• "A Dick and a Dream" or "Fight the
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.
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