The first season of Hung is an object lesson in why one shouldn’t always give up on shows that have imperfect starts. Some have intriguing concepts whose elements and execution don’t quite coalesce right from the get-go but which can improve over the course of a season and eventually develop into quite excellent series.
At the start of Hung‘s first season, I wrote this:
HBO’s new comedy series, Hung['s]…plot…can…be summed up in one amusing phrase: “high school basketball coach with an enormous dick supplements his income by becoming a male gigolo.” And true, there is something inherently funny about the idea, and Hung clearly strives towards the same sort of suburban satire as Weeds, juxtaposing contemporary middle-class suburban life with an outlandish “criminal” activity by focusing on an protagonist who straddles the line of both, committing a crime usually associated with people in a completely different demographic. Hung, however, is no Weeds, and its central character, Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) is no Nancy Botwin.
One of the show’s strengths–its rather intense commitment to portraying the reality of the current economic crisis–is also one of its greatest weaknesses. While it is admirable to see a show that refuses to pussyfoot around the recession or to brush it aside with jokes and snark, should a show that revolves around a gym teacher’s large cock really be this much of a downer? On the one hand, one might argue that, yes, the concept is a bit depressing. But the thing is, then one looks back to Weeds and remembers that, yes, a show about a suburban parent in dire, even life-or-death straits, can also be sidesplittingly funny (again, not so much right now, but think back to the first two seasons).
Hung has many other admirable qualities. Ray can be a bit of a bastard, which is a good trait in an interesting protagonist. His kids aren’t the typical television teenagers. They are overweight and Gothy and would look at home at an Osbournes family reunion, if the Osbournes were blonde and Californian. Jane Adams is absolutely wonderful as Tanya, a female artist-turned-pimp, who agrees to help Ray market his “winning tool” to ensure mass…consumption. Their relationship is without a doubt the most compelling aspect of the series…
On the other hand, the pacing can be glacially slow at times, and the snappy editing and scoring sometimes feel like they are desperately trying to make the show seem more lighthearted and free-spirited than it actually is. The soundtrack promises the sort of wacky comedy that the show itself does not deliver. Additionally, it seems like the show’s writers find his monstrous ex-wife, played by Anne Heche, hysterically funny, when she comes across as sad and rather boring, really.
In the end, the major problem may be that prostitution, as a crime, just does not have the same plot possibilities as drug dealing. In the first few seasons, Nancy had actual product that at any time could have led to a crackdown from the Feds. Ray just has his penis. And how many times can Ray almost get recognized or caught before it gets old? By the second episode, this scenario has already occurred. And as lead actors go, there is just no comparison. Mary Louise Parker makes Nancy a complex, multifaceted, frustrating woman full of life and contradictions; Thomas Jane’s Ray, by comparison, is rather one-note–stiff and downtrodden.
That is not to say that Hung is a total wash. There is quite a bit of potential here. Ray and Tanya make for a rather fascinating, if extremely dysfunctional, team. The show also displays a nice sense of humor, in spurts (no pun intended). The series’ writers and directors just need to work on lightening the show’s overall mood. Again, one can create biting, even acerbic comedy without making light of the protagonist’s situation. Hung‘s team just has to not be so tentative about going there. A show with that title and this subject matter should not be so wishy-washy. It needs to learn how to be more in-your-face…so to speak.
Now that I have seen the entire first season, however, my opinion has evolved, as has the series. The only part of my original review I still wholeheartedly agree with is in the uselessness of Ray’s ex-wife as a character. Neither she, nor the actress who portrays her, Anne Heche, are as entertaining as the writers seem to think. With that said, however, every other character has grown richer since the season began. As Ray continues to improve at his new career, he has becomes less of a sad sack and more of an underdog. Tanya has been revealed to be, in some ways, even more neurotic than we originally thought (a lot of insight into her character was revealed in a wonderful mid-season episode in which Rhea Perlman turned in a rare and Emmy-worthy guest-starring role as her intellectual, infuriating mother) but also more human, too. What makes their relationship particularly interesting is that, though we want to root for her, Tanya actually might not have the right business savvy or connections needed to help Ray succeed, leading to questions of loyalty versus survival.
Ray’s kids are also more compelling than at the beginning. They are both fiercely protective of one another and have an emotional bond far deeper than most television siblings, a bond which is put to the test as they make their way through their teenage years. Further, his son, Damon, is grappling with his sexuality and the possibility that he might be gay. I don’t know if any previous television series has ever depicted the coming-out process of a Goth kid.
One of my major concerns, during the first two episodes, was that the series would swiftly run out of plots and steam. Rather than continue to find new complications that might lead to Ray being caught, however, Hung instead turned inwards, and rather beautifully so. The series began to go further into the souls of Ray’s clients, providing some fascinating character studies about the type of women who would want to use the services of a male gigolo. Many are women living mundane lives with mundane husbands who long for escape, such as the lonely Molly, played brilliantly by Margo Martindale (Camilla from Dexter). Others, such as Jemma (Dirty Sexy Money‘s Natalie Zea) have whole other agendas. How these varying goals interact and intersect with Ray and his life provide the emotional, dramatic, and comedic core of Hung.
Can the show sometimes still be a bit downbeat? Yes, but its tone serves a purpose. By depicting the world as it really is, we identify even further with Ray’s plight and more easily suspend our disbelief for the outlandishness of his situation. Hung is no longer just a show about a guy with a huge schlong, but a show about how people struggle, and the lengths (no pun intended) they might go in order to find happiness. In other words, it’s a show about us.