America has always felt like a palace built to honor white males. Perhaps those days are now passing, because as the pilot episode of HBO’s new series Hung begins, we see masculine totems crumbling before our eyes. Beneath a blue dream of sky, an American flag ripples in the wind as the iconic Tigers Stadium is being torn down. In a junkyard, a wonderfully impractical American car is being crushed and compacted into an outdated cube of waste. The setting is Detroit, and everything—at least for Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane)—appears to be changing.
Co-imagined and directed by filmmaker Alexander Payne, the premiere episode of Hung has a lyrical sensibility. Carefully, almost lovingly, Payne’s camera documents the America that’s slipping away from men like Ray. As likeable and as complex as a Golden Retriever, Ray, a once ascendant sports God, has crossed into his 40s only to find himself an ineffectual high school basketball coach. He delivers crappy locker room speeches and relates altogether too much to his dim-witted, slacker charges. Further, his wife has left him for a nerdy, baby-faced dermatologist, a man who happily administers Botox to the woman as she harasses their servants.
One victory for Ray amid this mess is that his imperfect teenaged kids chose to stay with him instead of their mother—until his uninsured home, passed down to him by his parents, catches fire in the first episode of the series and they abandoned him. As the interior of the house burns, all the glittering trophies of Ray’s youth bend and melt in the flames; we get the sense that something that’s simultaneously terrible and beautiful is taking place, and that from these ashes, something new will be forced to emerge. But no, not exactly.
Instead of razing the rotting house that was his life, he pitches a small tent in his backyard by the lake. Lit from within, as if by a child’s flashlight, it resembles nothing more than a boy’s fort. Existing in this state of protracted and stubborn infancy, Ray literally lives in the shadow on his past. After attending a cheesy seminar designed to unleash his “inner entrepreneur,” however, Ray has a flash of self-awareness. Realizing that he wasn’t all that smart or talented, it dawned on him without a trace of vanity or judgment, that in spite of his emasculated circumstance, his greatest asset was his big dick.
It’s at this seminar that he bumps into Tanya (Jane Adams, who always seems to play damaged, vulnerable women), a flibbertigibbet poet who dreams of making her fortune by embedding poetry in food. She’s the most interesting character in Hung, and after a session of joyless yet vigorous sex, the pair decide to form a partnership, with Tanya serving as Ray’s pimp. The quirky interplay in their unlikely alliance is intended to generate all sorts of chemistry and sexual tension, but Tanya, who is more complex and compelling than Ray, steals the show. Her enthusiasm, feminine sensibility, and imaginative flights of fancy make Ray, who just doesn’t have very much to say, feel like a supporting character rather than the star of the show.
Ray has never challenged himself, and reciprocally, seems incapable of challenging anybody around him. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to have any friends to whom he might talk, and our only route into his mind is through a self-absorbed and plodding voiceover. It’s through this interior monologue that we find out that Ray considers his greatest achievement to have been a member of the Atlanta Braves baseball organization. Lamenting—even fetishizing—the injury that robbed him of his athletic potential, Ray ignores the selfless pleasures of adulthood, such as becoming a father and a part of a community. He loves what he never became, rather than what he did become, and it’s clear that his emotional development stopped when he was most obviously happy: a high school king with a limitless future.
Written by Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin, Hung is littered with cheap, mincing stereotypes: Ray’s nouveau riche neighbor, with his yard festooned with campy classical statues, stands at his door in his Cosby sweater and threatens legal action because Ray pissed in the lake; Floyd (Steve Hytner) the unctuous force behind the entrepreneur seminar, always has an insipid grin on his face and sounds like a telemarketer reading from a script he doesn’t really understand or even believe in. The creators of Hung posit a world where anybody who has achieved any success is likely an insincere asshole. Ray, our plucky vessel of redemption, dressed in his bad gigolo suit, is supposed to be a single-combat hero for the everyman, but watching him evolve and learn sensitivity from his clients is kind of like seeing a shallow person have a dark night of the soul, and it’s tiring rather than elevating.
Hung feels more like a mainstream network production than something out of the celebrated HBO factory. Mechanized and intentional, the show is content to suggest depth rather than deliver it. Lacking the poetic and poignant touch that might help make the ridiculous sublime or the sublime ridiculous, HBO, under cover of a dangerous and racy premise, has created a middlebrow comedy that, like its main character, looks good but has little to say.