On TV: Hung
For a show about a man with a large, um, gift, HBO's new comedy Hung has remarkably few penis jokes. This is HBO, so the expectations of quality are unreasonably high for anything they produce, but it is safe to say that Hung (premiering Sunday) transports the fictional American gigolo to new heights. A lower middle class Midwestern male prostitute may not sound like a hero for our times, but when the going gets tough, the tough get hoing.
Detroit-area father Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) has had a tough last couple years. A former high school baseball stud who married the cheerleader-beauty queen en route to a promising baseball career, Ray's dreams died hard as a result of a ruptured ligament and the unmet expectations of his ex-wife Jessica (Anne Heche). Ray makes a meager living teaching high school history and coaching the woeful basketball team, and tries to be a parent to his oddly overweight, goth-emo leaning teen twins Damon & Darby (Charlie Saxton & Sianoa Smit-McPhee). But when an electrical fire burns down Ray's house and he exhausts every possible option to pick up some scratch, he is left in the classic dilemma: live in a tent in the backyard or become a man-whore.
It turns out that Ray does both, but with the help of Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams), a woman he runs into at an entrepreneurial workshop. Ray and Tanya had a one night stand a while back, but they have more than a few sweaty moments in common. Tanya needs money to get her line of poetry-enriched baked goods up-and-running and Ray is not great with words or marketing himself.
Eventually, Tanya becomes Ray's pimp. I say eventually because the pilot takes almost the entire thirty minutes to get to this point. Most shows would get all of that exposition out in the first five minutes and get right to the awkward love-making sessions and embarrassing condom or sex-swing mishaps, but this is not Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. From Ray's opening narration over shots of the sad state of contemporary Detroit, the sense of quiet desperation imbues all of Ray and Tanya's decisions.
While Hung lacks the pace or action of the other "suburban parent resorts to the illegal economy to save the family" shows, namely Breaking Bad and Weeds, its takes its time letting the main actors endear themselves to the viewer. Except for the 2004 installment of Marvel's The Punisher, Thomas Jane has spent relatively little time front and center of a production, so his self-assured, straight-faced screen presence feels new. When his school teacher has to become Don Juan, some of the gruff Michigan affect goes away, but he retains enough of it that we still see a father desperate to help his kids by pleasing bored old ladies. Jane Adams has played the neurotic but optimistic character before, most memorably in Todd Solondz's Happiness, but this sad poet has more energy and gusto than most of her television roles and she starts to take over the show after the second episode.
Alexander Payne directed (and executive produced) the pilot, and his slow and steady approach to character revelations persists through the four episodes critics were given to review. No matter how you like your subscription cable programming (or other domestic pursuits), there are virtues to slowing it down and extending the pre-orgasmic moment. If you can channel your expectations inward and practice some sort of television tantra, you will be rewarded with a tremendous explosion of plot in a few weeks. Until then, as Woody Allen used to say, think of baseball players. RATING: 8