During the first season of Hung, creators Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin searched for a way for novice pimp Tanya (Jane Adams) to package her near-accidental ho Ray (Thomas Jane). These were both desperate people (he a soon-to-be-laid-off gym teacher, and she a poet-turned-temp proofreader), but that didn’t make them experts at the world’s oldest profession, nor was the show content to let their sad-sack attempts be the only punchline for this dark comedy. Instead, about halfway through, Hung decided to let it all hang out, branding Ray as a holistic healer (of sorts), and prostitution as sex therapy for lonely women.
The second season of Hung turns that therapy back on Ray. Early on in the first episode, “Just the Tip,” Ray struggles to perform with a pregnant woman, at least until Tanya advises him to embrace the memories that are holding him back by pretending that he’s fucking his ex-wife, Jessica (Anne Heche). It works, at least until the second episode (“Tuscon Is the Gateway to Dick”), when Ray realizes that he may be standing in the way of the client’s reconciliation with her husband, and he can’t be that guy. Ray’s co-pimp, Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff, a brilliant, all-business addition to the cast), doesn’t share Tanya’s touchy-feely motives though: When he chalks up his reluctant performance to the connection between his dick and his brain, she tersely replies, “Then sever the tie.” Given that drama really takes place between the dick and the brain (in the heart), Burson and Lipkin are right to build up Ray’s humanity, just as they are right to increase the push-and-pull between a newly empowered Tanya and the cruel alpha-dog Lenore.
And, boy, things are quickly getting intense. Tanya and Lenore seem to be comically coexisting when they compare their business plan to a famous Diego Rivera mural. Tanya sees needy hands, Lenore sees new services, like fisting. (Despite the subject matter, the humor feels surprisingly sophisticated.) But in the explosive third episode, “Mind Bullets,” Tanya’s getting cutthroat advice from cool, experienced pimp Charlie (Lennie James), surprising even herself as she steals Lenore’s dog, spitting out, “Bang, bang, bang, motherfucker!” And by the fourth episode, “Sing It Again, Ray,” Lenore’s acquiring a metaphorical leash for her ho, by sidling up to Jessica, slyly sabotaging any hopes Ray has of rekindling even a nonsexual relationship with his ex-wife.
It’s an unwritten rule, but when writing about a gigolo, you need to have a lot of balls in the air, and Hung keeps throwing more in there. For instance, Jessica’s nebbish husband, Ronnie (Eddie Jemison), wants her to give him a baby; meanwhile, her two teenage kids are trouble enough: Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is hanging out with “Fat and Proud” protestors, and Damon (Charlie Saxton) keeps trying to rebel against labels. It’s a bit heavy-handed to have Damon piss on home plate, but this isn’t exactly a subtle show (Tanya at a poetry slam: “You can’t fuck me, because I’m already fucked”), it’s a show about how we deal with our naked truths. Burson and Lipkin haven’t quite found voices for all these characters (it could take a few pointers from United States of Tara), but it’s getting there.
In fact, Hung grows more penetrating with every episode. There are still throwaway scenes (like between Ray and the rich neighbor whose having an affair with him), but they contribute to the way in which Ray is coming to terms with his lifestyle. When his kids tell him that he’d pick on them too if he was in high school, he brings Tanya closer to his family, as if to prove that he’s not just a jock and that he knows “interesting” people. Jessica has also grown this season: Now that we’ve seen some of the former cheerleader’s flaws, it’s easier to like her. This is especially true when Jessica and Ray go bowling together; it’s a rekindling of the old “date night”—even if the new husband, the kids, and the snarky Polish mother-in-law come along.
At heart, Hung is a show about loss. Dramatically, a Great Recession packs more of a punch than a Great Depression: These characters haven’t lost everything, so they’ve still got choices—and the corresponding consequences—to deal with. The show is surprisingly earnest and hopeful, an example of how good things can come out of bad circumstances. For years, HBO has been billing itself as “Not Just TV.” Hung can now proudly call itself “Not Just Sex.”