The next print issue of TIME, not yet posted online, includes my Short List blurb-review of HBO’s Hung (about a well-endowed high-school teacher forced by debt to become a gigolo, debuting Sunday), which is by definition short and glib and—because I am not made of stone—full of cheap double-entendres. The conclusion (I’m paraphrasing): “Hung’s dark comedy can tend to be bleak, but its view of hard times has not just length but depth.”
I had hoped to expand on this review on the blog more today; between some personal obligations and some breaking news you may have noticed, I don’t see that happening. So in slightly-less brief: Watch it. And give it time. I loved the first half of the extended pilot (directed by Alexander Payne), was left cold and underimpressed after two episodes, but by the end of the fourth, was really drawn in to its dark-comic, dead-timely vision of the American economy and the American spirit.
That shouldn’t be surprising, given that the show comes from Dmitry Lipkin, whose The Riches, about a family of grifters, captured the funny-money brio of the mid-aughts boom. (The storyline involved the paterfamilias con artist applying his talents as a fake lawyer for a dirty real estate company building developments on swampland.)
Here, Lipkin sets his story in the Detroit area—my native region and the blasted heart of the economic implosion. The opening images include abandoned factories and a stadium being torn down, as Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) comments in a voiceover: “Everything’s falling apart. And it all starts right here in Detroit. The headwaters of a river of failure.”
Drecker experiences his own personal Detroit meltdown when his house (and his parents’ before him) burns down after he lets the insurance lapse. Underpaid, with few supports and an ex-wife (Anne Heche) who wants to reclaim his two kids, he hatches a scheme with an old flame / struggling poet (the always great Jane Addams) to become a gigolo, with her as his pimp. It’s a comic setup, and plays like one as Ray gets accustomed to the idea of becoming man-meat, but it’s also a dramatization of a universal question in a great recession: what is your Plan B? Ray’s, like many people’s, is literally to try to forge a living with his own hands (among other parts).
There’s a lot more to unpack, and I unfortunately don’t have time, so I hope to return to it later in its run. There are also several flaws (as the uneven Riches had): Heche’s ex-wife is an especially thin-drawn harpy; the pilot tends to go (like me) for the easy joke (Ray sees a career guru who advises him to discover his “tool” to create wealth); and there’s a dissonance between Ray’s thoughtful voiceovers and his stubborn, slightly dense character.
Which is why I encourage you to be patient, because there are also layers of resonance, surprising heart and—eventually—laughs in this comedy. Watch it, and let me know if you agree or disagree with its potential. Just be sure to use lots of cheap double-entendres in your comments.