[Note: In reviewing HBO's new drama "Hung," a critic has the choice between intentionally overloading his or her review with double-entendres or attempting to proudly avoid such immaturities. I'm doing neither. If entendres happen, such is life. If they don't, that's fine too. Placing any restrictions upon myself would just be too hard. Too hard? Sigh. That's what she said.]
HBO's "Hung," which premieres on Sunday, is a deliriously dirty joke of a premise very slowly acquiring the show to accompany it. Each of the four episodes I've seen was better than the episode before it, more confident in its ironic and satiric edge. With each episode, I had a better indication that the show's creative team was in the process of finding the show that "Hung" is meant to be. What remains is the question of whether or not viewers will be willing to patiently giggle nervously through the early episodes of "Hung" in the hope by the end of its first season, the show has reached its potential.
Full review after the break...
"Hung" stars Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a man with an allegedly gigantic penis. There's the one joke that's the launching pad for the series, from creators Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin. Injuries curtailed Ray's potential sports career and now he's stuck at his old Detroit-area high school, teaching history and coaching basketball. He's not exactly a portrait of fulfilled ambition, which mirrors the city in which he lives.
"Everything's falling apart," Ray declares in the show-opening voiceover. "And it all starts right here in Detroit. The headwaters of a river of failure."
Ray has a harpy of a beauty queen ex-wife (Anne Heche), two truly odd -- not TV-standard odd -- children (Charlie Saxton and Sianoa Smit-McPhee) and, thanks to a preventable fire that left him with only a burnt-out shell of a home, more debt that his salary can sustain. Facing even more bills if he ever wants to stop living in a tent in his backyard, Ray attends a Get Rich Quick seminar, where he's instructed that all you need to become a millionaire is to isolate your One Winning Tool. And, well, I've already mentioned what Ray's one winning tool is. Get it? Tool?
In one of the few moments of subtlety afflicting "Hung," the pilot actually buries its lede. The first mention of Ray's gigantic member doesn't come until at least the 16-minute mark, though once the cat is out of the bag, it becomes all anyone can talk about for the rest of the episode and episodes to follow. From there, his wang is celebrated and genuflected to at regular intervals, though only with vagueness toward its exact measurements. I've hear from several critics who seemed disappointed that through four episodes, we haven't seen the organ itself. And I wouldn't care at all, except that the producers are coyly treating this guy's dick like the shark in "Jaws." There are at least three or four scenes where he's pulling up or down his pants, where he's reclining in bed on his side, as if we're supposed to be breathlessly awaiting its arrival. If you ask me, it's a stupid strategy, because it pretty much guarantees that the moment they go full frontal, the show might as well go off the air, which I hope will happen before "Hung" goes 3-D.
At some point, but not in the first four episodes, maybe "Hung" will decide that it doesn't need to dwell anymore on Ray's Unique Tool, that it was the thing that launches the premise, but it needn't be the show's brain and heart. When that switch is flipped and "Hung" concentrates its satirical eye elsewhere, I think there's a good series lurking, possibly a very good one. You just want (need?) to be able to say to people, "Well yeah. It *looks* like it's a show about a guy with a huge dick, but that's not really what it's about at all." For now, though, you can't honestly utter that "but" clause.
What "Hung" is sometimes about and what it will increasingly be about is the things people do to cope when traditional skills and traditional virtues will no longer pay the bills. What's the extreme to which you'll go to keep your family together and keep a roof over your head if you aren't the sharpest tool in the shed and you aren't the hardest working and when even being the smartest or most industrious doesn't really work anymore? When it isn't snickering at its audacity, that's where "Hung" is going.
Steering the show there is Jane Adams' Tanya. Unfulfilled by her job proofreading at a law firm an unable to sustain herself with her MFA and her poetry, Tanya slowly becomes Ray's pimp, but as Big Daddy Kane could have told her, pimpin' ain't easy, especially when you're running a stable with only one himbo in a down economy. Adams' character is welcome not just because the "Happiness" and "Little Children" star is a master at mining humor from the depths of pathetic misery, but because Tanya knows what the show can't quite grasp: It isn't enough to have a big dick if you aren't marketing it properly and you don't know how to use it. The humor from Tanya's marketing efforts and business plan is greater than anything that comes from Ray himself.
I went back and forth on Thomas Jane over the course of the four episodes I've seen. Is he too good looking for the plot to function properly? Ray's attempts to function as a gigolo are predicated on his endowments, but even if said endowments were somewhat less worthy of constant admiration, wouldn't somebody who looks like Thomas Jane be a perfectly viable candidate for the sex trade or, less degradingly, wouldn't he just be able to find himself a sugar mama? Yes, Jane plays the character as uncomfortable and a bit of a lunkhead, but he doesn't look like a man who would ever need to struggle with self-worth or confidence. Is the humor in how unexpected his uncertainty is? This is a guy who would never have needed to work to get women before and now he has to make the effort? I can see that. Or would it have been amplified if the story had been about a less conventionally hunky guy who just happened to be blessed below the belt? Because Alexander Payne directed the pilot, I couldn't help but think, "Is this story more believable and more interesting if the aspiring Casanova looked more like Paul Giamatti?" Wouldn't his obstacles be greater and his potential triumphs more monumental? Or are we supposed to sympathize with Ray that even his studliness wasn't enough to keep him from losing his wife to a nebbishy dermatologist played by Eddie Jemison? As I said, I went back and forth. Jane isn't really very amusing, but maybe the show is funnier for how unfunny its leading man is.
Jane is the grounded center as more outlandish characters surround him. Adams isn't exactly understated, but she seems moreso whenever Heche is around. Rebecca Creskoff enters in episode two as Lenore, who has parlayed minimal skills and even fewer brain cells into a career as a personal shopper for the well-to-do. Creskoff's broadness reminds you that it's a comedy you're watching, though she tips her hand in a way that nobody's allowed to do in the Payne-directed pilot.
Though there's always the same suspicion as in his films that Payne may be just a bit too contemptuous of ordinary people, too amused by the grotesqueness of normality, the pilot also has a regional specificity that dwindles with each additional episode. Detroit, its people and the city's own very real economic collapse are backdrops in the pilot, but if you only tune in to subsequent episodes, you may not feel that context anymore. Did somebody determine that too many abandoned factories and homeless veterans harshed the laughs or was it just easier to give a milieu in a 45-minute pilot than in subsequent sub-30-minute episodes?
Or maybe somebody at HBO realized that "Hung" would probably have to be paired with "Entourage" and noticed what an ironic juxtaposition it would be. In his own way, Vincent Chase is also just a gigolo. Whenever Vinnie tries being serious, whenever he tries using talents beyond his abs and his cocky smile, Hollywood smacks him down. He has the pretensions of an artist without the talent, which forces Ari Gold to pimp him out, to try to convince him that if the money's right, he shouldn't worry about his standards. But even as bad as things get for Vinnie, he's still living the movie star lifestyle and everything always works out. "Entourage" is just wish-fulfillment, a sunny, colorful parody of the way it's possible to live in the City of Angels. How will that synch with "Hung," a gloomy satire on what it takes to just survive in Steel City?
Given how bad "Entourage" has been for the last couple seasons -- I've yet to see the new episodes -- "Hung" has a good chance of being the better half of HBO's new Sunday Man-Whore Hour. It's on its way. It just isn't there yet.
"Hung" premieres on Sunday, June 28 night at 10 p.m. on HBO.
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