[06/26/09 - 05:41 PM]
The Futon's First Look: "Hung" (HBO)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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The network's description: "Years ago, as a student at Detroit's West Lakefield High School, Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) was athletic, popular and destined for success. Today, as a West Lakefield teacher and coach of the varsity basketball team (which is on an unprecedented losing streak), he's underpaid, uninsured and embittered that his wife of 20 years (Anne Heche) left him for her dermatologist, Ronnie Haxon (Eddie Jemison). After fire damages the rundown lakeside home he inherited from his parents, Ray's fortunes reach an all-time low when his twin children Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) and Damon (Charlie Saxton), who had been living with him, move in with their mom and her smug husband. Lonely, run down and at wit's end, Ray attends a self-help class, where the mantra is to identify a personal "winning tool" to market for financial success. After a not-so-fulfilling encounter with fellow attendee Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams), a would-be poet, Ray has a "eureka" moment. With the help of Tanya, the well-endowed Ray sets out to exploit his greatest asset in hopes of changing his fortunes."

What did they leave out? While the pilot runs about 45 minutes, subsequent episodes are a half hour. Plus, due to the July 4 holiday weekend, episode two won't air until July 12. And finally for you trivia buffs, Kristin Bauer played the Jessica role in the original pilot.

The plot in a nutshell: Life pretty much sucks for Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) - not only does his job as a history teacher/basketball coach only pay about half a living wage, but his high-strung wife Jessica (Anne Heche) has dropped him in favor of high school geek-turned-wealthy dermatologist Ronnie (Eddie Jemison). And just when he thinks things can't get any worse, they do: his parents' house - where he and his teenage kids (Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Charlie Saxton) had been staying since the divorce - burns down. Now left to camp outside the remains of everything he owned, Ray is at his wit's end. But after attending a self-help class (run by the always fun Steve Hytner), Ray realizes there's one thing life hasn't taken from him - his large penis. Becoming a male escort however is easier said than done. First and foremost, finding potential clients is no small task. He can't post a picture of anything above his waist and being charming isn't exactly his forte.

Thankfully he runs into former one-night-stand Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams), a bohemian poet still grinding away as a law firm temp, at the aforementioned class where her big idea is to bake famous poems into "lyric" bread. She, conversely to Ray's caveman attitude, is emotional and desperate, but more importantly, just may have the skills to market Ray's special gift. And thus a strange friendship/business relationship is born. As the ads say, she's the pimp, he's the ho. Sure enough, at first things look promising - Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff), an old co-worker of Tanya's who's since become a successful personal shopper, has offered to recommend Ray to her clients - once she samples the merchandise. And while Ray leaves her a satisfied customer, he also leaves behind his wallet, starting a chain of events that could wreck his life even further - or change it for the better - in the process.

What works: Jane and Adams are an amusingly awkward team - his Ray grunts his sentences and assumes his new profession with a 1970s-esque machismo while her Tanya is a tidal wave of neediness and views her new gig as a "happiness consultant." And while their Oscar and Felix routine could easily be written off as cliche, co-creators Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson have wisely given them enough self-awareness to keep things interesting. For Ray, it's realizing that this could really be his only shot at truly providing for himself and his fractured family. For Tanya, it's discovering that sometimes you have to stop kicking the dirt, hoping to get the things you want, and start taking them. All of the above however...

What doesn't: ...is difficult to see amongst the show's borderline humorless script and crushingly grim tone. The pilot spends an inordinate amount of time setting up just how shitty his life is - his job is shitty, his ex-wife is shitty, his sex life is shitty, his house is shitty, his neighbor is shitty, hell, even his opening pep talk to his basketball team involves dung beetles. We get it: his life is shitty and thank you for spending those extra 15 minutes beating that to death. Obviously making the life decision to sleep with people for money isn't an easy one to get to, but "Hung" lays it on so thick that Ray might as well put head in the oven or at the very least just spend his days laying in the fetal position. Not helping matters is that the few beats of humor almost universally come from double entendres about his penis. Because if there's one thing soul crushing drama needs, it's jokes that make 12-year-olds laugh.

The three subsequent episodes provided for review thankfully provide a few rays of light when all is said and done: Ray's son Damon (Sexton) is enjoyably well-adjusted despite his quasi-Goth appearance, while Jemison's Ronnie is so bland - Peter Cetera plays in the background at his cookout - that the fact Ray lost Jessica to him is almost funny. Heche's Jessica however is so painfully shrill that one wonders why Ray would be sad to lose her in the first place. All in all, "Hung" is the best and worst kind of HBO show - on one hand it pushes the boundaries of what we've come to expect from television...

The bottom line: ...but on the other it's also far too in love with what it's doing to tell a compelling story.

  [june 2009]  


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