Tom Shales Previews HBO Series 'Hung'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

HBO is trumpeting its new comedy series "Hung" as a television breakthrough, obviously having forgotten that a show with the same premise popped up roughly three decades ago: "Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute," an uproarious sketch starring Dan Aykroyd that aired during the first five historic seasons of "Saturday Night Live."

"Garvin" wasn't a fully formed weekly half-hour series, true, but it was considerably funnier than "Hung." The distinguishing feature of HBO's hero, the one that prompts him to go into prostitution, is that he's "well-endowed," like the hero of the 1997 movie "Boogie Nights." That chap exploited his gift by going into hard-core porn, whereas "Hung" hero Ray Drecker decides to try his hand, so to speak, at the flesh trade.

The premise is sensational, yes, but unfortunately co-creators Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson seem to be afraid of it, at least in the series premiere airing tomorrow night. It takes many a minute and a flood of flashbacks to maneuver Drecker into his new, and the world's oldest, profession, taxing a viewer's patience rather than tickling his funny bone.

(Note: In the interest of propriety, and not having to fight losing battles with editors, we have tried to make the rule-of-thumb for this preview single-entendre only. Of course you never know when something untoward might slip out.)

"What happened to my life?" Drecker wonders at one point. "I used to be a big deal." This is hard to imagine. He seems a born loser, at least as Thomas Jane plays him. To the creators' credit, part of the blame for his sad state of affairs goes to our recessionary economy, a fact that is spelled out in the premiere's introductory narration and gives "Hung" a welcome topicality and timeliness. It also helps make Drecker less culpable.

The premiere suffers from the narrative equivalent of hemming and hawing, and since HBO publicity and advertising have very broadly hinted at the hero's predicaments and his unusual gift, most viewers will know what's going to happen at least 15 minutes before it does. The show does become more forthright after the first installment, however, and subsequent episodes come face-to-face with material that is treated gingerly -- and coyly -- in the opener.

There's another problem, however. Ray Drecker is supposed to be a lovable loser, that furry fixture of the modern sitcom, but he's about as lovable as snakes on a plane -- either the actual occurrence or the horrendous movie of that name. Drecker is a shuffling, fumbling imbecile whose run of bad luck seems largely the result of his own stupidity. Who cares if he's miserable?

Hard-luck Harrys are increasingly common as sitcom or dramatic heroes. Drecker is a virtual first cousin to the desperate, terminally ill clod played by Bryan Cranston in AMC's "Breaking Bad." Cable crime shows specialize in either the deeply mixed-up hero (Denis Leary in "Rescue Me" on FX) or the outright, scummy anti-hero (Michael Chiklis in FX's now-departed "The Shield"). Meanwhile Larry David, star of his own brilliant HBO comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," writes and plays himself on that show as a trouble-prone nincompoop, someone who deserves much of the hideous misfortune that befalls him. All those precedents help make Ray Drecker very underwhelming.

Divorced from his abrasive wife (the mediocre Anne Heche), the impoverished Drecker moves into the dilapidated dump in which he was born and arrogantly berates a next-door neighbor who asks him to make the exterior a tad tidier. Overloaded sockets lead quickly to a fire that completely destroys the place, with Drecker insisting that the two children of whom he was inexplicably given full custody live with him in a pair of tents pitched in the back yard.

That's not funny, it's stupid.

Apparently lacking any marketable skills, Drecker signs up for one of those make-a-fortune seminars. This is when the show finally starts getting funny, some of the humor dependent on predictable wordplay. "What about you, Ray?" the teacher asks him. "Have you considered your winning tool?" The number of plays on the word "tool" seems uncountable.

The idea of launching a new career in heterosexual male prostitution, or "escorting," occurs slowly to Drecker and to a politically correct poet -- easily liked Jane Adams as Tanya Skagle -- who takes him under her wing and tries teaching him a bit of romantic finesse, though Drecker's first client, a friend of Tanya's who runs a feminist women's magazine, wants raw, wanton and nasty sex, with no candlelight, soft music or pretty little nosegay.

"She gave more orders than a four-star general," Drecker complains later.

In the second episode, the contemporary zeitgeist gets even more attention from the show's writers as Drecker faces the ugly realities of an adjustable rate mortgage, that satanic invention that got so many American homeowners in Dutch over the past few years, and its handmaiden in sadistic usury, the home equity loan. The show meanwhile earns genuine and hearty laughs as Drecker tries, with the pimp-poet's help, to refine his seductive style, learning the meaning of such arcane terms (to him) as "foreplay."

Since the show steadily improves as the first few episodes progress, "Hung" can hardly be written off as a failure. But getting off to a good start is more important in television now than it has ever been, especially considering all those millions of itchy trigger fingers poised at their remotes and ready to abandon ship at a moment's notice (there are so many other ships).

Perhaps the hero's outright stupidity will be played down in future installments, or perhaps it's supposed to make his amorality seem ingenuous, even innocent. "I don't think it's funny; I think it's sad," someone says near the end of the premiere, and as happens frequently with new shows, it sounds too much like self-criticism.

Hung (one-hour premiere, with 30-minute episodes thereafter) debuts tomorrow at 10 on HBO.

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