The HBO series Hung, created by Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson, could simply have been about a high school basketball coach and history teacher who has, as one amorous neighbor puts it, “one beautiful penis” and decides to put it to work for himself. As much as it is about the world’s most unlikely gigolo (and his even more unlikely pimp), the series, which just recently started its second season, is just as much about the country hung out to dry that necessitated this particular line of work. Set in Detroit, forever the eye of our economical storm, Hung has seemingly done what no other documentary, narrative film, miniseries, or, indeed, television series has been able to fully grasp: It has conveyed with acuity, wit, and urgency what it is to live in the immediate present-day and witness our country’s achingly slow recovery.
That’s not to say that certain documentaries (Capitalism: A Love Story) and a few dozen books haven’t laid the ground for our understanding of the origins of our current clusterfuck, but with the exception of a few interviewees, little has been made in the way of a human face to connect to the times. And that’s exactly what the smart and understated Thomas Jane gives us: the sort of erstwhile all-American winner who’s now looking down the barrel of middle age at a deteriorating job at his old high school.
Jane, who was cast for what series co-creator Burson called his “handsome guy at the office” looks, plays Ray Drecker, the aforementioned coach, history teacher, and divorced father of two who awakes one night to find his house engulfed in flames, his old basketball trophies and memorabilia from his pre-collegiate heyday reduced to black char and cinder. In a blaze started by an electrical fire, everything that Ray once was is erased, not to mention the place where his children and he slept. Ray’s brother-sister twins, Darby and Damon (Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Charlie Sexton), are shipped over to live with his ex-wife, Jessica (a very good Anne Heche), and her gynecologist husband, Ronnie (Eddie Jemison), and Ray is left with little more than a tent in the backyard. Part of a last-ditch effort to regain his glory, Ray enrolls in a lecture series on how to become a millionaire, which leads him to Tanya (the brilliant Jane Adams), a former flame and full-time poet. It’s ultimately Ray’s idea to become a gigolo, but it’s Tanya who molds and shapes his marketing scheme and begins gathering a very small clientele, effectively becoming his pimp.
Apparent since the heyday of Godard’s 1960s output, and as recently as Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, prostitution is the most elemental of metaphors for capitalism and Ray inarguably is shaped into the perfect product over the season’s rampant 10 episodes. In fact, by the end of the season, Tanya must fight off Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff), a personal stylist and self-appointed “life coach” for lonely housewives and horny elderly women, from taking over “the business.” And if, just maybe, Hung is a bit too obvious in its reflection and refraction of our economic turmoil, capitalism’s gaping faults, and the burden of reconstruction, it fills every pocket of its narrative with personal storytelling and fine detail, assuaging any potential for a one-trick pony. Among other story threads, Jessica and Ronnie’s relationship becomes its own minor clusterfuck, Tanya gains a boyfriend (Joshua Leonard) who encourages her to confront her mother (Rhea Perlman), and Ray, hired to facilitate a side-of-the-road fantasy, begins to fall for a client (Natalie Zea).
Alexander Payne, who directed the pilot, set the tone, but has also obviously been a major influence on the show’s structure and thematic content. As much as the series confronts the latest Wall Street pummeling, it’s just as concerned with men having trouble being men, especially when confronted with losing women or, in some cases, being overwhelmed by them. Ray has been stripped of what makes him “masculine” (a wife, the ability to provide for and shelter his family) and then, in a moment of inspiration, begins to sell his ability to please women, regaining an uneasy sense of masculinity in the process.
Despite being the show’s central figure, Ray is inarguably a product, one that is being sold to women by women. Depending on the viewer, Hung could be seen as a genius “origins” story, a breathtakingly realistic detailing of the beginnings of a small business or a covert feminist parable, if not all three at once. As in Breaking Bad, its only major competition for best series currently on television, Hung ultimately deals with the awkward, complicated, unwholesome, and amazingly funny realities of attempting to realize the American Dream when it’s not handed to you, and, as most of the female characters of the series will attest, it’s one sweet ride.
The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer brings out the crispness of the colors; close-ups and skin textures are admirably detailed. That said, the black levels are a bit oversaturated and the season is replete with negligible soft shots. Most of these problems, however, are inherent in the source rather than being a problem with the transfer. As for the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, there isn’t a single negative comment that can be made. The levels are well balanced with dialogue, whether in a crowded restaurant or being whispered in an ear, coming out crystal clear. The atmosphere soundtracking is fantastic, both in detailing the creeks and water drops in Ray’s dilapidated home or encompassing the bustling soundscape of his high school. Though not a showoff series like, say, True Blood, Hung is given due technical attention.
The three audio commentaries by Colette Burson, Dmitry Lipkin, and staff writer Brett C. Leonard are intelligent and funny, but they largely lack insight into the show’s themes or the technical side of the series. Similar things can be said about the two featurettes, one on the women who appear throughout the season and the other on the origins of the series, both of which are way too short to be memorable. Fake personal ads by Tanya and Ray are also included.
Given a solid audio and visual treatment, Hung comes to Blu-ray on the heels of the premiere of its second season, detailing the awkward, complicated and very funny realities of realizing the American Dream when it’s not plainly offered.