This Sunday, HBO returns the second season of Hung and the seventh of Entourage, two series that I continue to follow despite their considerable challenges, but for very different reasons. With Hung, the story of a Detroit-area male prostitute (Thomas Jane) and his pimp (Jane Adams), I feel that there’s a really good dark comedy about the decline of the American dream struggling to emerge from the often-forced plots. Entourage, on the other hand, is a show that I realize has long since passed the stage where I can, in any sense, defensibly call it good, and yet I watch it (well, at least the beginning of the season) because, like its characters, I just can’t break out of my patterns.
The feeling I get from Hung is that of a lot of talent—both in front of and behind the camera—that hasn’t been applied toward a coherent goal. Jane gives a reliably excellent performance as Ray, a divorced high school teacher and coach severely down on his luck, trying to keep his dignity as he feels himself losing his place in the economy and his family. The role of frustrated poet-turned-pimp Tanya, meanwhile, ingeniously played to Adams’ twitchy, neurotic strengths. But the entire series is hung, as it were, on a difficult premise: the idea that Ray would stick with a gigolo gig that he still doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with or good at, and which seems to require tremendous time hunting down clients for every few hundred bucks. The second season at least acknowledges this; there’s a very funny scene in which Tanya hits up a successful pimp (Lennie James), who finds it hilarious that Ray only takes female clients—you can’t do that!, he scoffs. There’s no money in that!
I don’t go along with the common criticism of Hung, that, for a comedy, it’s not very funny. I mean, that’s true enough—Hung isn’t a bust-your-gut, forget-your-troubles comedy. It’s more of a wince-and-smile-ruefully comedy. I’m fine with that, though; in movies, for some reason, people are more accepting of gray areas between comedy and drama, whereas TV has for some reason conditioned us to believe that laff-a-minute sitcoms and deep-dark dramas are the ideal of their respective fields. If you want hilarious diversion, yeah, this is not the show for you. My issue with Hung is that it’s actually a better show when it deals with things that have little to do with its central premise: a subplot in the new season, for instance, in which Ray is coaching his school’s baseball team through what, due to budget cuts, may be their last season.
At times, Hung is a clear-eyed story about desperate measures in desperate times in (I say this as a Michigan native) a desperate area. But I sometimes feel that it’s discovering, too late, that it would have been better off starting from a different premise. It would be hard to turn it into a high-school baseball story called Hung, though. Unless you were talking about a hanging slider.
Meanwhile, Entourage continues to coast in the same zone of amiable purposelessness in which it’s spent the last few seasons. I can describe the early storylines—Vince has to do a stunt in his new movie, Vince gives an embarrassing interview, Ari is now Hollywood’s biggest agent, Drama needs a job, Turtle needs a new assistant and E, blandest major character on TV, is pursuing monogamy with Sloan and acting as a sounding board for everyone else. But really, isn’t that every season of Entourage now? It all boils down to: there are problems being in showbiz, but hey, they’re pretty awesome problems to have, it’s all good, where’s the women at? &c.
I still check in, though, for the familiarity, the memories and for the occasional cutting and savvy insight into the biz, as when Ari tells a female associate to button her blouse higher for a pitch meeting with some football executives: “This is the NFL, not the NBA.” They’re fewer and farther between, though. Like a hit movie franchise, Entourage is testament to the power, and problems, of turning momentum into inertia.