“Just the Tip”
June 27th, 2010
Like Cougar Town in the fall, Hung was a show in which some viewers and critics became hung up on its title and its initial premise to the point where they were unable to see the ways in which the show was something more than a dude with a large penis. Those of us who kept watching, and writing about, the show were considered outliers, those who were perhaps reading more into the series than was actually there. And as Hung returns for its second season, it does so in a way which makes us wonder if us outliers were wrong all along.
It’s not that “Just the Tip” is particularly bad, but rather than it feels particularly pointless: the plots in the episode feel either like continuations of first season stories or cliche-riddled story arcs which feel divorced from the social circumstances which created them. While there is meaning in the fact that the central image of Ray’s struggle, his fire-damaged house, remains fire-damaged, it also means that the show feels exactly like it did last summer, which is a problem on a show which seems like its stakes should be escalating rather than normalizing, and which makes me question just what this show wants to be.
It’s unfair to compare an intense one-hour drama and a half-hour dramedy, but Hung is very much a cousin of sorts to Breaking Bad: both follow high school teachers who face economic hardship and who turn to illegal activities which rely on their pre-existing skills in order to make money, complicating their relationship with their family and creating new complications with business associates in their new way of life. The difference is that Hung pulls back from consequences, creating a “near-miss” with Jessica nearly discovering Ray’s new profession at the end of last season but then returning everything largely to normal here. Rather than getting deeper into his new profession, the show is simply playing out the same type of tension that it played out the year before, a curse which led to another similar non-comic half-hour in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie.
The issue is that Ray’s clients are not unlike patients on a medical show, convenient ways for the series to simultaneously reinforce its premise and connect with some characters and storylines which don’t necessary relate to that premise. And so Ray’s affair with a pregnant woman is simultaneously a way to show that Ray remains a less than perfect prostitute and a way to connect his work with his lingering feelings of nostalgia for Jessica in the wake of their near encounter at the end of last season. It’s not the least functional premise in the world, but it seems like an inherently limited one: rather than embracing the long-form of potential of his profession (which they tried, albeit with mixed success, in the Natalie Zea arc last season), it’s just another way to create anvil-like parallels with his real life, the life that the show is more interested in and that I am, well, less interested in.
I like Thomas Jane well enough, and Anne Heche is a good actress, but I find Jessica to be too omnipresent within the series. Men of a Certain Age did a similar story in terms of a man struggling to get over his ex-wife, but it allowed that wife to stay on the periphery of the series and focused in on the husband and his changing relationship with his kids and his attempts to start a new life. Here, Jessica is a character who should be recurring more than supporting, who should pop up at certain times and who should be someone whose presence changes the series’ existing dynamic as opposed to stretching it too thin on a weekly basis. While there is a certain poignancy in her discovery (made through an all-too on the nose conversation with her daughter) that she has led a life defined by her relationships with men, and I see the connection to Ray’s work as a prostitute wherein his livelihood is defined by his brief relationships with women, I think the show would be better if she wasn’t a part of it.
This is largely because I think Tanya’s story has the most potential, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s given enough time to really develop. Her battle with Lenore offered the episode’s best comedy (in Lenore’s reading of the mural), but it also shows a character really struggling to come to terms with their new identity and putting themselves out there to do it. The problem is that we don’t see what really drives Tanya to that point, or how she responds to it; instead, we see her stalking some prostitutes, receiving some on-the-nose advice from Lennie James’ mentor figure, and then giving Ray an ultimatum which doesn’t really read all that effectively. Jane Adams is good enough to be the lead of this show, but so many of the supporting characters and overarching themes have been placed on Ray that she isn’t allowed to live up to her potential: as the show moves further and further away from really interrogating the show’s premise, her character will only feel more marginalized.
Now, it is true that this is only the premiere, and that there is a chance that things could improve in subsequent episodes. But then I look at the threads the show has created, not bothering to give the kids anything new to work with, and introducing an underdog sports subplot which fails to register as anything but a cliched metaphor, and I can’t help but feel pessimistic about it. It isn’t that these stories don’t have any potential, but rather that the bloated nature of the show’s cast and focus have me wondering whether any of it will be allowed to breathe, or mesh with that which surrounds it. Hung doesn’t have a great deal of plot, but it has so much going on that it nonetheless feels weighed down. When it’s revealed that Ray is still having sex with his neighbour’s wife, it isn’t an extra bit of shading: it’s another reminder that the show just leaves stories drifting without purpose as opposed to really driving towards its central themes.
And while I still think there’s life left in this show, and will keep watching to discover whether the creators understand, I can’t shake the sense that the show is taking absolutely no lessons from the ways in which the first season stumbled, choosing instead to just carry on as things were; considering the fact that I believe many of us have been judging the series based on potential, I think that’s a poor way to start a second season, although we’ll see if things improve as the year goes on.
- These half-hour non-comedies can really throw you sometimes, and Ray’s speech to his baseball team was an example of this: I didn’t know if it was sincere or whether it was fake, or whether it would be well-received or if the team would prove to be a complete joke. What’s interesting is that none of this happens: we don’t meet a single player, we don’t see how good they might be, and instead it’s just an excuse for Ray to express his feelings on the issue and for the players to offer a fairly narrow glimpse into economic struggle.
- Some funny stuff with Jessica’s mother, but that character still feels really out of place for me – funny, sure, but the small bits of broad comedy unrelated to the premise are overly apparent at times.
- Since I didn’t compare Hung to enough other shows during the above, figured I’d throw in United States of Tara.
- For more on the episode, check out James Poniewozik on why it doesn’t need to be more funny (which I’d agree isn’t its problem), Alan Sepinwall on how hindsight is 20/20 with the show’s first season, and Todd VanDerWerff on the show as “forgettable fluff.”
- Vaguely related to Hung (focusing more on Party Down), Jaime Weinman has some interesting thoughts about cable comedies and how they tend to hold onto their premise longer than network series: I certainly see some of that at play here.