With the economy tanking and pink slips becoming an ubiquitous confetti in cities across America, it's no surprise that many creators are mining the potential death of the American dream for dramatic potential.
Throughout his career, writer/executive producer Dmitry Lipkin has succeeded at showing the dark side of that dream. In his short-lived (albeit much missed) FX series The Riches, Lipkin used a family of Travelers, the ultimate modern society outsiders, as a means for exploring just what materialism and suburban trappings meant to the psychic landscape.
In “Hung”, the new HBO series Lipkin co-created with Colette Burstein, the subject of the American dream looms large. This time, the focus is on Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), a down-on-his-luck Michigan basketball coach/high school history teacher whose life is literally falling down around him. Besides for a thankless, underpaid job at his high school alma mater (where he returned after an injury sidelined his pro sports career) , Ray has got a shrew of an ex-wife to deal with (Anne Heche), two sullen teenagers (Charlie Saxton and Sianoa Smit-McPhee), and his lakeside family home catches fire in the middle of the night, leaving the family more or less homeless.
I had the opportunity last week to watch the first four episodes of “Hung” (the first of which is directed by Alexander Payne) and was struck by the spiral of despair that Ray finds himself in as he circles the drain, a situation that accompanies the realization that his life hasn't amounted to its full potential. It's a path that leads him to first to a self-help seminar overseen by the oily Floyd Gerber (Seinfeld's Steve Hytner) and later into the bed of local poet Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams), a frizzy-haired free spirit with a dream of launching Lyric Bread, a line of baked goods with works of poetry baked right in.
That these two aren't compatible romantically is a given. Ray is a fallen golden boy with an ego as big as his, well, physical endowment; Tanya is a strong-willed modern woman in touch with her sexuality whose dreams remain squarely out of reach. Her idea for Lyric Bread is so cerebral and just plain out of touch with reality but that hasn't stopped Tanya from dreaming big. Just as The Riches found humor and pathos in the workplace setting, here too does “Hung”, setting daydreamer Tanya as a legal office temp, a drone copyproofing endless contracts in a neverending routine of drudgery.
That these two would decide to form a partnership and set up shop as a prostitute and a pimp is one of the main plot points of “Hung”'s pilot episode, though it takes a while for the duo to come to this conclusion, as obvious as it is to the rest of us. Which is one of the problems with “Hung” as a whole: the plot twists are so conspicuous that they can be seen a mile down the road.
It's clear from the very start that Ray will have to use his member as his most marketable "tool," and when he shocks the seminar's attendees by stating this fact, I cheered for the painful awkwardness of the situation. But that's the problem: the ensuing scene unfolds strictly within Ray's imagination and not reality, where he spins a yarn about being a vintage car enthusiast. And yet I couldn't help but wonder why Lipkin and Co. didn't go all out and actually have that conversation unfold rather than play it out in Ray's mind. I wanted to see his classmates' reactions, their looks of shock and horror and perhaps amusement. I wanted Ray for once to be honest.
This misstep is one of the series' downfalls. I kept hoping for some pathos-laden humor to rear its head, but “Hung” plays it safe in more ways than one. Ray is presented as little more than a sad-sack to the point that it's hard to root for him when everything he does (whether setting up a tent in the backyard to urinating in the lake) drags him further down. His journey should be hilarious (in a trainwreck sort of way) but it's often presented extremely matter-of-factly.
Likewise, one can't help but believe, given the series' title and its placement on pay cable, that “Hung” is going to be extremely provocative but it's actually quite a chaste program as a whole. Given Ray's physical, uh, dimensions and his new line of work, one could imagine that this could push the envelope, even for HBO but the result is fairly tame, even by basic cable standards.
I couldn't help but picture Aaron Eckhart in Thomas Jane's role and wondered just what he would be able to do with this picture of wounded masculinity. Still, Jane brings a quiet power to Ray that's at odds with his bruised and battered ego, a lived-in quality that shows the signs of too many battles with ex-wife Jessica (Heche) and too much worry stemming from his maladjusted kids. As Tanya, Adams gives the poet-turned-temp the wide-eyed glimmer of hope that eternal optimists have even at the worst of times, turning Tanya from a human punching bag (witness her relationship with Rebecca Creskoff's insane Lenore) into the living, breathing embodiment of thwarted potential, making her a kindred spirit with Ray.
Still, despite a slow start and a defined lack of humor, “Hung” does show some major improvements by the third or fourth episode, where Jane's Ray and Adams' Tanya share some emotional--rather than physical--intimacy (witness Tanya's handling of a missing wallet) and Ray finally embraces his new prozzie gig, seeing the value of Tanya's viral marketing, its female-friendly positioning as Happiness Consultants, and the service he's providing to some sex-starved women. The turning point comes a little too soon as Ray finally fulfills his contract with an older married woman (The Riches' divine Margo Martindale); he's a little too slick, a little too smooth considering his apprehension (and possible psychosomatic reaction to meeting his client in the flesh).
That said, there's still a sweetness to the moment where Ray realizes that these women--average housewives that they are--may be just as disenchanted as he is. Despite having wealth and privilege, they are just as discontented with how their lives turned out as Ray is and perhaps he is giving them more than just sex. Perhaps he's giving them a dream.
“Hung” premieres Sunday evening at 10 pm ET/PT on HBO.
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