“Doris is Dead; Are We Rich or Are We Poor?”
August 8th, 2009
When it comes to shows like Hung (and Showtime’s Nurse Jackie), I’ve begun to fall behind on my blogging – in fact, since the show’s pilot, this is the first time I’ve even written about Hung. I’ve likely dropped a few notes on Twitter, but at the end of the day there has been something about this show that has kept me from writing about it.
Part of it is that the two critics I respect the most, Alan Sepinwall and Todd VanDerWerff, are both reviewing the show on a regular basis – in most instances I like to add my own voice to the chorus, but when I’ve found myself quite busy I tend to only rush to get a review out if I have something to say that feels distinct and not just a general “here’s what happened, here’s how it fits into the show’s formula” post. They are both doing that and more each week, so if I don’t feel particularly inclined to post I’m far less likely to.
And that’s been the problem with Hung, really – I’ve never watched an episode that’s made me absolutely want to sit down and blog about it, which isn’t to say that I haven’t been enjoying the show. Rather, it seems like it took a while to really find itself, and to find the kind of storylines that felt less like Ray and the show searching out their identity and more like the show questioning both Ray and our own preconceptions about the premise. And while I think there were some solid episodes over the past few weeks, “Doris is Dead…” really hits home in terms of presenting a legitimately compelling (if expedient) scenario wherein Ray’s new employment is complicated in a way that feels both dangerous and complex.
Beginning with Jemma’s arrival last week, played for Comedy as Ray was forced to repeat the same experience over and over again, we got that scenario, and here we saw the show delve into equal parts sports cliche and complex sexual relationships in an effort to further emphasize just how problematic this new role could become for all involved.
If there’s anything Friday Night Lights has taught us as a television series, it’s that what happens on the field, or on the court, is less a representation of athletic achievement than it is personal emotions overflowing into the world of sports. What happens with the players and the decisions they made is often a product of angst, depression, or simple adrenaline fueled by off-court activities. This isn’t to say that there is a 1:1 relationship between the off-court emotions and the on-court performance, but it has to be considered at least somewhat meaningful that the Wolves break their losing streak the one time Ray feels like he’s there coaching for someone else, that someone is watching him as closely as he was watched when he was playing back in high school. That fire and drive had been missing from Ray’s life for quite a while, it seemed like, and the whole point of the show is about how in some ways this new job is about resurrecting his life just as much as it is earning enough money to rebuild his house. The fire was a symbol of a deeper struggle, rather than a struggle in and of itself.
The scene in the beginning of the episode, where Jemma pays Ray to take part in an elabortate charade at her Psychiatrist, is fascinating for Ray because in many ways being a “Happiness Consultant” is a form of therapy for him as much as it is for her. His job, as he’s discovered over the past few episodes, is as much about making the person feel good about themselves as it is about the sex. However, because Ray is not perfectly adjusted to his new lifestyle, in the process he’s discovering that he (like them) needs more than sex to feel as if he’s living his life to the fullest, and there becomes this push and pull: both Ray and the client know this is a one-time deal, but the existence of “regular customers” all expecting different people means that Ray goes from someone struggling to find an identity to someone who needs to become a chameleon, and the moment he gets comfortable (as he’s become with Jemma, in all of its awkwardness) he’s going to get pulled into another identity with the next client.
Ray’s decision to let Jemma into his life is as complicated as it sounds, especially considering how alluring Natalie Zea is in this role. I really enjoyed her work on Dirty Sexy Money, and here she’s doing an interesting play on that type of character: while she was legitimately crazy on DSM, occasionally softening to show her emotional side, here she is playing someone quite normal on the surface but who we know has some very strange desires not in terms of sexual perversity, but in terms of control. For Tonya, this becomes a point of contention, but for Ray it becomes a challenge: here’s someone who’s tough to figure out, someone who put him through the hell of doing the same scenario over and over again until he got it right. When he lets her into his life, it’s as if he is subconsciously attempting to use her challenging nature to put his own life to the test. On the surface, it works, as it motivates him to give the speech that fires up his team and gets them moving. It turns his life into the sports cliche it used to be, reclaiming a sense of past glory by essentially using his client.
It’s a strange inversion of the prostitute/client relationship, and one that will begin to fall apart very quickly: Ray suddenly wants the girlfriend experience, wants to go steady, but Jemma admits that it “wouldn’t be as much fun” if she wasn’t paying him. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, prostitution: the most destitute people fall into the profession, and as a result are the most likely to fall into Pretty Woman-esque scenarios where the promise of love and meaning are most alluring, even though they threaten one’s ability to perform your job. For Ray, who deals less with sex than with fantasy, this is particularly dangerous, and his choice to forego control in order to have something that is able to effect his life as opposed to simply those parts of his life involving sex is the very definition of a slippery slope.
And it’s also the most interesting thing the show has done yet. Yes, Jemma’s arrival was very quick and seems almost too fast, but I think that’s kind of the point: Ray’s officially on board with this job, and the benefits of playing someone who people want to be with, and who is successful, is starting to prove as fantastical to him as it is to his clients. Tonya, meanwhile, is stuck dealing with being kept out of that part of the arrangement, and in many ways has her own fantasy betrayed: this was supposed to be her orchestration, but here comes a client who wants to take her out of the equation. She becomes marginalized, her friendship with Ray and her new business venture both becoming increasingly beyond her control. Her life was screwed up too, but she’s left managing money while Ray is out fulfilling sexual fantasies, which isn’t an easy job.
These elements all made this, for me, the best episode of the series yet, but the ancillary stuff was also quite intriguing. Ray’s son having a crush on Tonya isn’t a huge surprise, but it does represent the convergence of the show’s two worlds. Similarly, Anne Heche’s stuff with her husband’s quite substantial financial loss was the best use of the character yet – while it may seem a bit on the nose for a show that directly evokes the current financial crisis to deal with the money trouble of yet another character, it finally brings the character into the show’s general themes, and that’s a good step forward for the series, which is exactly what it needed at this halfway point in the first season.
- Any show dealing with double lives is going to introduce all sorts of potential leaks, but now we have two: Elenor had Ray’s wallet for a period of time, and now Jemma knows his name, where he works, and everything else. Conveniently, a former potential leak (the principal spotting Ray and Jemma at the restaurant) is now filled in with Ray “dating” Jemma, but there’s still plenty of bombs lying around.
- I still am kind of in love with the German Mother with no respect for privacy or any sense of commitment to one’s husband – it’s a really fun role, and it’s a good way to get comedy out of an episode that for the most part wasn’t interested in making people laugh.
- The episode may be all about fantasy, but that basketball turnaround was still pretty ridiculous – the team was sucking way too much in the first half for them to suddenly turn around with a single motivational speech. But, I guess that’s the point of the thing, really – I was at least glad that they let us see the final desperation three-pointer instead of ignoring it entirely.