Series Premiere: Hung – “Pilot”



June 28th, 2009

“Everything’s falling apart.”

Hung is not a show about an abnormally large specimen of the male anatomy.

Well, okay, technically it is, but that’s really not what the show is trying to tell us. While the new HBO “comedy” follows the exploits of high school basketball coach-turned male escort Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), who happens to be particularly well endowed, its real focus lies less in what he’s doing than why he’s doing it, a common thread in shows that followed down on their luck characters taking drastic career moves (Breaking Bad, Weeds, etc.). What they choose to do may be a source of comedy for the series, but the legitimately intriguing elements come more from the scenario that drives him to that point.

And while this one may seem crude at first glance, it’s actually quite apt considering the show’s message. Set against the devolving urban landscape of Detroit, the show situates itself as a commentary on the death of the American dream (a note that Alan Sepinwall makes in his review of the show), and how one man chooses to sell a particular sexual fantasy as a replacement of sorts for the fantasy life he lost through a series of bad luck scenarios that mirrors the crises facing many modern Americans. For those who haven’t yet watched the show, this probably seems like a highly verbose justification for enjoying a show about a man with a big dick, but let me assure you: while the title may seem to refer to that part of the show at first, it is the way that Ray has been hung out to dry by life that it’s actually interested in.

For this reason, there’s more than enough substance to Hung for me to stick around – it’s not particularly funny for a comedy, sure, but what it lacks in laughs it makes up for with scale.

There’s a reason that Ray holds up a photo of a dung beetle for his basketball players and not a metaphor that actually makes sense when you first hear it. It’s because this is a character that legitimately is carrying around a load of really unfortunate circumstances, a load that is slowly but surely weighing him down. His life has been a series of fantasies ripped away from him by a harsh reality: he was the high school jock with the scholarships and the professional future until he went down with an injury; he was the husband and father until his wife left him for a rich doctor and his kids (who had decided to live with him at first) left when his house partially burned down; his once highly successful high school basketball team is in the midst of a losing season. It’s like everything he touches, eventually, really does turn into the worst case scenario, a reality that has brought him to a legitimately low point in his life. This pilot has no trouble convincing me that this is a desperate man with nothing to lose, and in his mind very little to gain considering the state of his affairs.

There was a point early on when I thought like it was too much, that the pilot was going too far to convince me that Ray would be desperate enough to fall into this particular employ. One of the things I liked about Weeds was how it dropped us right into the world and forced us to question up front Nancy’s pot dealership, as opposed to how here it seems like it gives us the hard sell (If you stop reading after this pun, I’ll forgive you). But as the pilot wore on, and Ray ends his first session in the Entrepreneurial seminar by hooking up with former lover Tanya, it became clear that we as an audience needed to see what the initial fantasies to get where the show was going. It clicked with me that being hung is actually a fantasy in and of itself, a notion that this particular feature is enough for Tanya to want to sleep with him.

And what is being a male escort if not selling a fantasy? Here’s a guy whose every fantasy has been utterly destroyed, left as a burnt out house he has to tent outside, but he’s not willing to give up on it entirely (refusing to sell to his douchebag of a neighbour). That corpsey shell, if you will, is what he has to work with, and his choice of tool is the one that he feels more comfortable turning into a new fantasy, crafting the “Big Donnie” persona in order to achieve this. There should be no surprise that he struggles to market himself properly, as he is so far removed from the real fantasy he wants to attain (one where his wife didn’t leave, and where his kids are still with him, and where he has the money to pay his property taxes and send his son to gothic concerts) that he can’t quite tap into what other people might be looking for.

Enter Tanya, the lyric baker, who is nothing but a romantic, who believe wholeheartedly in the power of bread to take you to another place emotionally based on the poetry printed on a piece of paper and laminated that’s currently wrapped in its doughy embrace. The pilot doesn’t really delve too far into their relationship, but their dynamic is kind of fun, and Thomas Jane and Jane Adams do have a certain kind of chemistry. Together, they’re the right combination: she understands how he can sell himself (which she’ll have plenty of time to do considering that lyric bread is unlikely to be a huge sensation), and he, well, has the tool to do it. At the core of their relationship is the core of the show, the idea that it is where you least expect it, and with the help of the people around you, that you can emerge from the depths of despair (or from the tent in the backyard) into a new sort of realistic fantasy.

There are things about that which are a bit too simple, notions that drive the show from being a realistic investigation of the death of the American dream into, well, a fantasy in and of itself, a world where a potential client gives him fifty bucks just for showing up or when director Alexander Payne (Sideways, etc.) spends just a bit too long watching his various sports trophies and mementos of his past life literally go up in flames. That fire is the element of the plot which feels the most contrived, making Ray that extra bit too destitute for his decision to prostitute himself to even be a question, and it’s the one problem I have. The show goes that step too far to keep us from judging him for it, to the point where I’m sitting there thinking “Why not become a male escort?” and not really coming up with an answer. When that fire burns down his past, literally, and gives him a chance for a fresh start, I’m at the point where I’d rather see him sell himself sexually than enter back into the burnt remains of his house in an effort to recapture it all.

I’m guessing, having only seen the pilot, that the show is situating itself to ask the same question, and that the struggle between reality and fantasy will become more crucial as time goes on. I’m sure there will be the requisite double entendres (there were a number here, especially during the self-help seminar), and the show’s half-hour format and its position as a comedy will necessitate that the lofty expectations I’m placing on its central conflict won’t always be clear, but at its core I think the show has something to say about things other than the male anatomy, and combined with strong performances that’s something I’m interested in spending some more time with.

Cultural Observations

  • The funniest thing in the pilot is something I hope we see more of, which is Ray’s ex-Mother-in-Law, a scottish woman who hates everything about him and, more hilarious, was in the car as her daughter (Anne Heche, who plays stoic and calm better than crazy, which ultimately works for the role) left Ray, telling for her to take the rose bushes with her. She cracked me up, the only time I really laughed during the pilot, which works fine for me.
  • I’m surprised they were able to get through the pilot without wasting the joke about his first real job: it’s obviously going to be a situation for massive comic pratfalls and the like, so it’s interesting that they left their comic ace in the hole, so to speak, until the second (or, who knows, the third episode).
  • Would a newspaper allow an online personal ad, even in the X-Rated section, to feature an X-Rated picture? This is but many of the highly intellectual questions this pilot left me with.
  • Speaking of intellectual, was it just me or did Alexander Payne spend way more time on the removal and disconnection of the fire hoses?
  • Looking for more indepth analysis of this show about a guy with a large package? Check out Alan Sepinwall and ToddVanDerWerff on the subject!

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