Being a comedy about the male anatomy—a farce with a sensibility both mordant and whimsical— Hung (HBO, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) delights in its phallic symbols. So exuberant as to be unafraid of looking juvenile, it revels in illustrating the pathetic circumstances of one Ray Drecker, whose only solace is to be better endowed than UT-Austin.
Ray, played by Thomas Jane, is middle-aged and struggling to remain middle-class. Hung is set in the present moment of economic collapse, and Ray lives in the capital of its grimness: hopeless Detroit. As the pilot starts, a crane demolishes Tiger Stadium and a gas guzzler, that four-wheeled totem of aggressive masculinity, gets compacted without pity. Ray’s glory days came as a two-sport high-school athlete, and as his inherited lakeside house burns down, the baseball bat of an old trophy droops in the heat. After the fire, after his two teenage kids have fled to live with his ex-wife, Ray pitches a tent in the yard of his lakeside property. Here, he pensively strokes the beer bottle in his lap and resentfully watches a big fat catamaran shoot past his pier. Ray’s not terribly bright. I’m confident that he’s never really read James Joyce, never learned that a pier is a disappointed bridge. But disappointment he knows down to the bone.
For a soulless job, Ray coaches a losing basketball team and nominally teaches class at a high school defined in one shot emblematic of American mediocrity. The structure brings to mind the third sentence of Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House: “Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts warehouse.” Failing to make ends meet there, he tries to take a page from Dale Carnegie—or maybe Horatio Alger, author of rags-to-riches tales for boys, most famously Ragged Dick.
At a self-actualization course promising to make its students millionaires, our hero reluctantly reconnects with Tanya Skagle, whom he was once imprudent enough to sleep with. A nightmare hippie girl with an MFA, she is given to post-coital readings of Rumi and wearing her hair in a Joyce Carol Oates nonstyle of lifeless waves. She yelps during nookie about Ray’s substantiality, inspiring him to try Deuce Bigalow-ing for big bucks. Over a meal at an especially dispiriting chain restaurant, they cut a deal for her to pander on his behalf. In this scene, Jane Adams, playing Tanya, does the most marvelous thing with her mouth when, ogling Ray, she ruminates on how deliciously profitable it will be to exploit him. It’s as if she licks her chops just by biting her lip. She wants half of the gross, like an actual pimp. Or an art dealer. He waggles a sausage link at her.
Yes, yes, the scenario is not enormously plausible; a horny woman with ready cash would be more likely to jet away on a romance tour a la the Charlotte Rampling character in Heading South. And I know, I know that after Breaking Bad and Weeds and whatever else, you think you’ve had your fill of white-collar suburbanites with morality-crime income streams. But this show makes a virtue of vice in its own way. Co-imagined by Alexander Payne, who directed the pilot, Hung is a purposeful lark about emasculation. Ray is a brother to the socially impotent heroes of About Schmidt, Sideways, and especially Election, a film about a virile Ferris Bueller being unmanned by a cupcake full of arsenic.
Hung follows The Girlfriend Experience, released last month, a film directed by Steven Soderbergh (a man fascinated with self-degradation since sex, lies, and videotape) and featuring adult-film actress Sasha Grey (the talented star of Fuck Slaves 3). The film and the show both contemplate the American dream and the current nightmare economy, but Soderbergh, so heavily influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, concentrates on fragmentation and riffs on Marx’s theory of alienation. And Grey—disconcertingly and intriguingly—operates in a chic, sleek daze. Her character is a luxury good. Ray is an econo-size package from some big-box store, one of those warehouses promising all the bounty this republic has to offer. Or maybe he’s an SUV in a time when they’ve become outmoded.
At any rate, Ray’s adventures constitute a statement about the ego of the American male as it relates to the dollar. The other key phallic symbols in the pilot bracket the action. At the opening, up a towering flagpole, the Stars and Stripes flap over the half-razed stadium. At the end, a far shorter staff flies the same banner over a homeless man’s shopping cart, suggesting Hung’s intentions as a penetrating look at the new status of Old Glory.