Hung debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. CDT.
There’s maybe no TV creator better at charting America’s uneasy relationship with its money than Dmitry Lipkin. His shows almost always have over-obvious elements or brutally stereotypical characters, but they’re uniquely tuned in to the way Americans feel about the cash they do or don’t bring home. His The Riches, which lasted two seasons on FX, was yet another suburban satire, anchored by two great performances from Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, and as a suburban satire, it was a little cliché. But as an examination of just how fake all of the money that piled up in the real estate bubble of the mid-aughts was and just how terrified everyone involved was to lose that money, it worked terrifically. Lipkin tried to push things too far toward broader, over-arching satire on that show, but on his new series, HBO’s Hung, he grounds his commentary on American society in a much more pressing economic reality – the long, seemingly empire-ending slide into bankruptcy we find ourselves in now.
Hung is set in Detroit, one of the ground zeroes of our economic catastrophe, and its opening shots feature a stadium being torn down, abandoned factories, utter desolation. These all play under a monologue from gym teacher-turned-manwhore Ray Drecker (don’t worry; this all comes up in the first five minutes … and the advertisements) about how the country his parents loved has turned into a cesspool. It’s the sort of pragmatic, ever-so-slightly self-centered economic conservatism (what’s up with all the taxes?, basically) that drove much of Tony Soprano’s rage at the emasculation of the American male (though Tony had other things driving his rage, granted), and it’s perfectly contextualized here as the driving force behind a man who seems to have lost himself from his storied youth. From there, Ray loses his house to a fire and his kids to his ex-wife, and as he slowly finds himself slipping farther and farther off the economic radar, he has to turn to desperate measures.
The best thing here, surprisingly, is Thomas Jane, one of those movie stars who never happened, now turning to TV parts. Jane’s low-key charisma never quite worked on the big screen, where current male lead parts require someone with a bit more spark, but as a TV everyman, he’s surprisingly charismatic, turning Ray’s every word and move into what feel like last-ditch options, the things someone would do when backed into a corner. Jane’s easy-going nature and the brutal sense of disappointment he projects as the character makes the idea that Ray would come to the idea of becoming a prostitute so easily work almost better than it should. Ray’s such a good-natured guy that you get the sense he thinks sharing his gift with the world is something he’d jump to fairly quickly.
Ray, you see, has a big penis. (And thank God I don’t have to write for an outlet that makes me write around the show’s central premise and the reason for its title.) And that big penis is known for giving women a good time in the sack, as evidenced by his ex-wife and a one-night stand who found him especially invigorating. When he goes to a session designed to help people pull themselves up by their bootstraps and is asked to find his special gift (or, as the seminar leader puts it, his “tool”), he realizes that the only thing he has going for him is that penis. So, of course, prostitution.
I realize as I write this that this all sounds a little too TV-y, so to speak. It’s definitely a high-ish concept, not as high concept as, like, Ray discovering he’s a secret sex robot or something, but also not so low concept as to never sell to a major network. Even if the idea of Ray becoming a prostitute is the necessary evil Lipkin must indulge in to get this show on the air, though, most things about his journey in the pilot are shot through with the kind of observational skill Lipkin brought to much of The Riches. That seminar Ray attends is one of the simultaneously saddest and funniest things I’ve seen on TV in a while, bouncing between the desperation of a bunch of people who’ve watched their dreams dry up, their absolutely awful ideas for how to pull themselves out of the holes they find themselves in and the genuine humor in those ideas. Ray’s friend and former sexual conquest Tanya , for example, wants to create a loaf of bread with poetry at its center (like a fortune cookie), and in the hands of character actress Jane Adams and from Lipkin’s script, this idea veers between funny and depressing so quickly that it almost sells the entire pilot.
Similarly, the first gigolo job Ray gets called out on ends unexpectedly, in a terrifically shot and edited little sequence where a hotel peephole becomes both another character and a silent commentator on the action. Alexander Payne, of Sideways and Election fame, directed the pilot, and his deceptively flat style is a good match for the desolation that surrounds Ray at every moment and the wry tone of the script. He also gets great performances from Jane and Adams, whose duo forms the central axis point the series will revolve around (without spoiling too much).
Hung is far from perfect, it should be said, just like The Riches was. In the pilot, at least, Ray’s ex-wife Jessica is played by Anne Heche at her Anne Heche-iest, though the script does her no favors by making Jessica the kind of emasculating witch that too many ex-wives on TV are. Lipkin gives Jessica some choice lines (“I’m only shallow because I CHOOSE to be!”), but the whole idea of the ex-wife who’s a constant, nagging premise at the edges of her ex-husband’s life is so lifeless and dull at this point, that I don’t need to ever see it again. There’s also stuff within the premise that feels a little too forced (like the idea of Ray living in a tent while he repairs his house that burned down), as though Lipkin wants to remind us at all times that we’re watching a comedy, not a drama with comedic elements. The music, in addition, is often a bit too twee, as if trying to remind us at all times to smile. And, yeah, the story in the pilot is a little shaggy, even if I liked the structure of how the pilot got Ray back to the point where he started the pilot.
But I’d recommend you start watching Hung. Like most HBO shows before it, it’s a bit of a slow builder, but it’s trying to chart out a very particular world. In this case, though, that world feels so immediate because it’s the world that you and I and everyone else in this country is living in right now. Hung has some rough edges, but at its center is a very good show.