Friday, June 26, 2009

No, he's not just happy to see you: reviewing HBO's "Hung"

Some TV show titles are mysterious and enigmatic. A name like "Breaking Bad" or "Pushing Daisies" gives few hints as to a series' premise, luring the viewer in to watch the show and discover just what that title means.
"Hung" is not one of these titles. Unless you're an interior design geek, you've probably already guessed that this series, which debuts 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO, is not about drapes or picture frames.
It is about a man with a very large penis.
I'm sorry, but there's really no delicate way to express that.
In fact, not only is it about a man with a very large penis, it's about a man with a very large penis who decides to take on a second career as a male prostitute. Yet, despite that salacious premise, "Hung" isn't a salacious show.
Actually, it's an intelligent, melancholy yet funny series about desperate people taking desperate measures to survive in these hard economic times. The man possessing this significant endowment is Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), a former star athlete gone to seed who is now working as a basketball coach and history teacher at his old high school. His grasping, greedy wife (Anne Heche) has dumped him for a richer man and a series of disasters, which I won't spoil here, has left him alone and living in a tent in his backyard.
Looking for answers, Ray enrolls in a "get rich quick" class, in which the teacher encourages him to find his "winning tool." Ray takes this advice a bit too literally, and decides to become a gigolo. He's aided in his endeavor by struggling poet and former one-night-stand Tanya (Jane Adams), who has also enrolled in the class with visions of creating a product called Lyric Bread (don't ask).
Tanya is at first repulsed by Ray's idea, then joins him as an unlikely pimp.
The thing I like about this show is that, unlike the antiheroes of similar series (such as "Weeds" or "Breaking Bad"), neither Ray nor Tanya is really motivated by greed. Ray just wants to be able to afford basic things in life, like some concert tickets for his teenage son or some much-needed home repairs. Tanya just wants to quit her soul-sucking temp job and pursue the artistic career she's always dreamed of.
These aren't opportunists. These are people who have reached the end of their rope. "I used to be a big deal," Ray laments in a voiceover. Of course, now he's just big. So why not make the most of that?
"Hung" is a timely, perceptive show that does a nice job of reflecting the troubled times we live in. To add a little more poignancy, the series is set in the struggling city of Detroit. Early scenes depict the demolition of Tiger Stadium as a sort of metaphor for a way of life that no longer exists.
However, despite its downbeat subject matter, "Hung" has a lot of humor, particularly in Ray's attempts to forge his stud persona, and in mousy Tanya's strained efforts to assert herself as a pimp.
Obviously, this is a show that leans a lot on its actors to make its characters sympathetic despite their strange enterprise. Both Jane and Adams are up to the task.
Jane made an excellent Mickey Mantle in HBO's TV film "61," but has failed to gain success on the big screen. Ray might be his role. Though Jane's performance can be a bit too broad at times, he's never anything less than likable in the role, and he's utterly believable as a tarnished golden boy.
As the dippy, earthy-crunchy Tanya, Adams has the much harder role. In the wrong hands, Tanya could have easily become a grating caricature, but Adams is so subtle and smart that she gives this flaky character depth. Through her puppy dog eyes, we see how heartbroken Tanya is by the empty life she lives, and how badly she's looking for some way to keep her head above water. Plus, her delivery of the phrase "man whore" is impeccable.
The only bad performance in the bunch is by Heche, who is almost unbearably shrill as Ray's ex-wife. I understand that the character is supposed to be uptight and brittle but, in the third and fourth episodes I watched, it becomes clear that we're supposed to feel some sympathy for this character, who is as much a victim of our consumerist culture as Ray and Tanya. But Heche is so irritating, I couldn't feel anything.
However, that's just one quibble. Overall, "Hung" is a promising, interesting show that transcends a raunchy idea. And a less than subtle title.
"Hung" debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday with a special 45-minute episode. Subsequent episodes will only be 30 minutes long.

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