Hung, HBO’s new comedy debuting at 10 p.m. on June 28, follows a broke high school coach who becomes a male prostitute to leverage his God-given “gift.” The show isn’t as sordid as one might think. It’s also not as funny or innovative as the saucy title portends.
The comedy’s true gift is star Thomas Jane, who imbues the main character with the type of relatable flaws that set him apart from most small-screen protagonists. He plays Ray Drecker, a basketball coach suffering a mid-life crisis and economic meltdown all at once. Ray’s surly ex-wife (Anne Heche) married up and has little need to be nice to her former beau. Ray’s house just caught fire, forcing him to sleep in a tent in his backyard. His job seems secure, but it’s barely enough to pay off all his bills. Plus, he’s trying to get custody of his two kids but needs to rebuild his home before that can ever happen.
A quick visit to a motivational speaker (Seinfeld semi-regular Steve Hytner) inspires a possible solution, one that doesn’t require any market research. His “personal” endowment could be just the ticket to economic recovery. He gets an assist from a former one-night stand, a struggling poet named Tanya (the fine indie actress Jane Adams) who is trying to carve out a career on her own terms. Tanya offers to serve as Ray’s pimp, marketing his visitations as a happiness consultant. Ray doesn’t know if this new line of work is for him, but not for any ethical reasons. He’s just not a quick study when it comes to wooing strange women.
Hung strains to capture the zeitgeist, and setting the show in recession-rocked Detroit is a strong step in that direction. It’s also refreshing to see a story not centered in either New York or Los Angeles. No one is drinking appletinis here.
Ray’s voice-over kicks off Hung with a conservative streak — possibly the last one viewers are likely to see. Ray refuses to blame others for his plight. It’s how he was raised — you make do with whatever tools God gave you. But Ray isn’t very bright. He’s a mediocre coach, from what we can tell from his locker room speeches, and he’s clearly not Father of the Year material.
His teen children are aggressively non-photogenic, another television rarity. His son paints his fingernails black and cries after confronting his sister’s ex-beau. Said sister is overweight and grumpy. It it really worth becoming a male prostitute to spend more time with this duo?
Ray is staring failure in the face, and it didn’t have to end up this way. Years ago he was his high school team’s star, and he flirted with a professional sports career before injuries forced him into coaching. It’s a fascinating element, reminiscent of John Updike’s iconic Harry Angstrom character in his Rabbit novels. What happens to the high school superstar once real life takes over?
But Hung isn’t up for the challenge, at least not yet. The show’s early episodes focus on the silly back and forth between Ray and Tanya. If a romance eventually blooms between the two, all the better. But for now their exchanges hardly set off sparks. The performances prove inconsistent, and the show cries out for the kind of standout supporting player to spark the comedic elements. For a moment it seems like Hytner’s character could be the show’s saving grace, but he’s rarely used throughout the first few episodes. Heche plucks the same dour note as Ray’s ex. The actress isn’t a warm on-screen presence to begin with, and her character seems like a compendium of bitter ex-wife clichés sprung to life.
Jane’s Ray is Hung’s biggest selling point. He’s average in nearly every way possible. He grouses when he’s forced to wear a suit for his appointments. He’s also a bit of a pig, like when he blanches at an assignment involving a portly woman. The show seems destined for Ray to appreciate women better the more he gets to know them in the Biblical sense.
Naturally, the consequences of Ray’s new profession are given little attention. Could his customers give him a sexually transmitted disease, or vice versa? Isn’t he risking his career by dabbling in prostitution?
Still, Hung isn’t a lost cause. Jane is a formidable anchor for an adult-themed program, and the material can still be spun into a number of complex storylines.
So far, any moral wrangling is MIA. How would a middle-aged, middle American embrace such an extreme second job without asking himself if what he’s doing is right? It’s a question left unanswered, and until Hung comes within shouting distance of it the show appears destined for mediocrity.