Hard times demand a ... oh, nevermind

by Glenn Garvin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

26 June 2009

HUNG - 10 p.m. EDT Sunday - HBO 

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build — I’ll be there, too. And whenever a poor guy is gettin’ $50 to pleasure a bored rich lady with his prodigious lovestick, Ma, I’ll be there, too.”
—Tom Joad, “The Grapes of Wrath”

Well, I can’t find that last sentence in John Steinbeck’s novel, but perhaps the HBO guys were working from the Larry Flynt translation when they conceived (heh-heh, pun definitely intended) “Hung,” the Official Sitcom of the New Depression.

The ruined Oklahoma farms have been replaced with code-violating split-levels in the Detroit suburbs; the steely-eyed bankers with bullying homeowners associations; Tom Joad’s Marianite sister with a poet-turned-pimp; and Joad’s dawning socialist conscience with a male prostitute’s growing (all puns intended until further notice) priapic pride. But otherwise, “Hung” is definitely a poor-and-dirty-minded man’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

The Tom Joad of “Hung” is Ray Drecker, whose glorious jock past has been reduced to dusty trophies and faded yearbook photos as he hits middle age. Wifeless (his ex-cheerleader wife left him for a dermatologist with a fatter bank account), penniless (the divorce didn’t go well), and in danger of being jobless (the high school basketball team he coaches hasn’t won since the Bush administration), Ray was bewildered and bitter even before the home his parents left him — uninsured, of course — burned down and left him living in a tent.

“They were proud Americans,” he recalls of his parents. “They had normal jobs and made a normal living. They fit in. They weren’t kicked up the a—every day of their lives by property taxes and homeowners’ associations and greedy beauty queen ex-wives.”

In desperation, he signs up for one of those get-rich-quick seminars about freeing your inner entrepreneur, but he can’t even complete the first assignment: to come up with a skill he can sell. “I’m not that smart. I’m not that talented,” he says plaintively.

But the instructor assures him everybody’s got something they can build into a business: “Identify your own tool ... then we’ll discuss how to market it.” Which is a quite a coincidence because Ray swings quite a hammer, if you get my drift (and if you don’t, this is definitely not the show for you). Soon enough, under the “nom de coitus” Big Donnie, he’s gone into the world’s oldest profession, male division.

Thomas Jane, who played homerun king Roger Maris in HBO’s movie “61,” exudes a convincing odor of despair as Ray. So does Jane Adams (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) as Tanya, one of his former one-night-stands who abandons her abysmally failed career as a poet to become his pimpette. (First task: convincing Ray that “Big Donnie will give you every inch of his love” is not the most elegant marketing slogan.) If anything, they’re too convincing; the humor in “Hung” tends to get blotted out by the melancholia.

For all HBO’s coy promos, “Hung” is not really a show about sex; it’s got less coupling (and a lot less biting) than any random 15 minutes of the network’s “True Blood.” It’s more like a casualty report from the battlefields of modern economics — not just the obvious ones like lost jobs and foreclosed homes, but what it sees as the corrosive commercialization of a society where marketing buzzwords like “branding” disguise what we used to recognize as carnie huckstering.

“When did life become something you buy?” wonders Ray when his kids hit him up for concert-ticket money while the smoke from his gutted house still hovers in the background. It’s a good question, but not a very funny one.

Topics: hbo | hung
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