Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski enjoys poetry and herbal tea, so maybe she too could be a pimp in Detroit.
"It's kind of a new twist on an old industry."—Tanya, describing her business to her mother
It's hard out here for a pimp—especially when "here" is Detroit, and the pimp in question is frazzled, vegetarian poetess Tanya. As a pimp managing well-hung and hard-up high school teacher Ray, Tanya usually doesn't really know what she's doing, but she fares much better as a TV character. As portrayed by the hilarious Jane Adams (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Tanya makes HBO's half-hour comedy series Hung worth watching.
Facts of the Case
Hung: The Complete Second Season picks up at the turning point where Season One ended: Ray (Thomas Jane, The Punisher) has agreed to bring another pimp onto his team at Happiness Consultants. The beautiful and predatory Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff, Mad Men) clearly wants to crowd Tanya out of the business, but she may bring in more and wealthier clients. Ray also has an eye on another wealthy and unsatisfied woman: his ex-wife, Jessica (Anne Heche, Volcano). In addition to dealing with the growing pains of her teenage twins, Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee, As the Bell Rings) and Damon (Charlie Saxton, Twelve), Jessica isn't quite as happy as she hoped she'd be with her wealthy dermatologist husband, Ronnie (Eddie Jemison, Ocean's Eleven).
The season's ten episodes are distributed over two discs:
• "Tucson is the Gateway to Dick" or "This is not
Sexy"—Ray has a crisis of conscience about having sex with his
pregnant client. Jessica struggles to connect with her children.
• "Mind Bullets" or "Bang Bang Bang Bang
Motherfucker"—Facing firing at her office job unless she gets Ray to
sleep with her boss for free, Tanya steps up her skirmishes with Lenore.
• "Sing It Again, Ray" or "Home
Plate"—Tanya sets her sights on her own Moby Dick: a rich older lady,
Frances, whom Lenore failed to procure as a client for Ray. Ray tries to connect
with Damon, but finds him drawn to Tanya's bohemian artist scene where Ray feels
out of place.
• "A Man, a Plan" or "Thank You, Jimmy
Carter"—It all started with a scone at a poetry reading. The one who
ingested it, Damon, has a crisis that calls for Ray's attention on the very
night that Tanya has finally landed Moby Dick.
• "The Middle East Is Complicated"—Ray gets in
trouble when Middle East politics finds its way into his (personal and
professional) sex life. As Tanya tries to sort out the Frances situation, Lenore
discovers that she's been missing out on some profits.
• "Third Base" or "That Rash"—After the
baseball team's locker room is vandalized, Ray hopes to generate some donations
by playing in the school's alumni game. Tanya sinks deeper into the consequences
of her lies as Frances and Mike begin to figure out that they've been duped.
• "Fat Off My Love" or "I'm the
Allergen"—Tanya and Ray are both in danger of losing their non-sexual
jobs, Lenore is threatening to blackmail Ray if she doesn't get her cut of the
Frances money, and Jessica's marriage is crumbling—a process that speeds
up at a disastrous awards ceremony for Ronnie.
• "Even Steven" or "Luckiest Kid in
Detroit"—The aftermath of the previous episode plays out as Ray tries
to get Jessica back, Tanya tries to get Ray back, and no one tries to get Ronnie
back except a random acquaintance who wants to jerk him off at a gas station.
There's a rather unfortunate parallel between the plot of Hung and its position within the pack of high-end TV shows. It's a show about people who are doing what they must and just getting by, and "just getting by" is the feeling I get from the series itself, too, for most of this second season. While Adams' performance and a stretch of strong episodes toward the end will justify the few hours it would take to watch the season, this isn't and probably won't become a show people will be nostalgic for a decade from now.
For the most part, the problems with Season One persist here. Chief among them is a seemingly unforgivable one for a comedy: it's really not that funny. There were probably only half a dozen moments in the set that made me laugh out loud, and there are only so many double entendres about penises I could take before the writing started to feel lazy. Although I like certain aspects of Thomas Jane as Ray, he doesn't seem to generate much humor for the lead character of a comedy series. This is the element of Hung that makes Jane Adams its obvious MVP. It's hard to imagine another actress playing this part with the combination of humor and believability that Adams brings, and she has a knack for the kind of physical comedy that is so rarely done well on current TV. I cracked up watching her clamber up a chain link fence like a panicked squirrel to avoid confrontation or mount a moving walkway railing to retrieve a piece of stationary garbage on the other side. Her conversations with the more traditional pimp, Charlie, are also among the best and funniest of the season.
Adams plays drama almost as well as she does comedy, and the crisis of conscience she undergoes this season—capped off by a great scene she shares with Ray at the ruins of the old Tigers stadium—made me realize that this whole series may have been better as an hour-long drama with a sense of humor rather than a half-hour comedy with a heart. It's a nice idea, perhaps, to make a light and funny show about coping with economic woes, but given how real and unrelenting they are in our country right now, the more earnest moments in Hung have the potential to connect deeply with audiences. Thomas Jane is great at delivering these, as when Ray finally just accepts the gift of a mattress that he'd been proudly resisting or when he gets a letter of termination at school along with many of his fellow teachers. In voiceover, Jane ably delivers some good lines about this experience: "You knew it was coming and you knew it was gonna hurt, but still: when you're looking right at it, it's a fucking punch in the gut." Somehow, the show just feels more strongly executed in these dramatic moments.
Hung's primary appeal is as an underdog story, which creates the other big problem with the series and the season: Anne Heche's character, Jessica, feels out of place and gets a huge amount of screen time. Jessica is attractive, popular, and rich, and doesn't have to work. Compared to the other characters, her problems—an absent sense of purpose, vague malaise in her marriage—just feel kind of petty. Unlike the stories of a pimp poetess or a high school teacher gigolo, Jessica's is also one we've heard many times before. On one commentary track, the writers explain that they devote storylines to Ray, Tanya, and Jessica in every episode. Considering that the half-hour format feels so cramped and Jessica is not very compelling, the time she gets would be better spent on Ray and Tanya, or on secondary characters like Ray's kids or Lenore. This season, the sweet romance between Frances and Mike, especially, could have benefitted from a few more scenes.
Despite the above complaints, Hung is a show that generates affection for its characters and locales. So as the season closed with Ray and Tanya sitting together in his yard and dangled their feet into the lake from the little pier, I felt a certain warmth that will keep me a just-satisfied-enough client of the Happiness Consultants for at least another year.
HBO provides a good high definition release with plenty of extras for Hung: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray). The series has a gritty look to match its themes with some intentional grain, run-down sets, and sometimes a drab color palette. These stylistic traits don't give the Blu-ray format a chance to really strut its stuff, but the visuals come across as they're meant to. Sound is very good, pumping in well-chosen music tracks forcefully, presenting clear dialogue, and adding some nice directional effects.
Extras include a 16-minute block of deleted scenes (with no option for playing them individually) from a number of different episodes. Some of these definitely fill in a few underdeveloped storylines, such as a scene that shows Damon and Darby spooning and one that has Lenore planting the idea in Jessica's mind that Ray has sex with too many women. A 14-minute featurette called "Inside the Series" is mostly just clips from the show and interviews with the writing staff. It would have been nice to see more behind-the-scenes footage and hear from some of the cast members here. The five commentary tracks (detailed above with the individual episodes) are also in this writers-only club, which is a shame. We get some fun tidbits about the making of the show here (Creskoff was initially shy about getting naked; Adams added the hilarious fence-scaling moment herself), but other moments are somewhat off-putting. The track for "Third Base" has a whining session from the participants about how they work so hard to interweave the episodes' different storylines, but most of their viewers aren't smart or attentive enough to notice. Considering that the people who usually listen to these commentaries—other than reviewers like yours truly—are the major fans a series depends on, it seems unwise to generalize about them as ungrateful morons when one records such a commentary…
High-end HBO comedy Hung: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) performs about as well as its problem-prone, high-end gigolo Ray Drecker, which is to say, not incredibly well. It will be back for a third season, though, and as Ray says about the baseball team he coaches: "Every year is another chance to make it."
Not guilty—like its characters, Hung is just getting by.
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