We’re perennially fascinated by people who are physically different from “the norm,” particularly when there is a sexual element involved. And some of them — including Mamie Van Doren and John Holmes — have been able to parlay that fascination into successful careers. Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) hopes to join their ranks.
You can guess from the title of HBO’s Hung what Drecker’s marketable asset is. Aside from that, however, he’s an everyman — in his 40s, a has-been athlete, and a divorced dad of two. His route into the sex industry is roundabout and a bit desperate. Much like Drecker, the series is working too hard to find its footing.
At its start, Drecker suffers a formulaic string of bad luck: his wife leaves him for a wealthy dermatologist, his uninsured house burns down, his kids move in with their mom, and the basketball team he coaches is on a losing streak. Living in a tent in his back yard, Ray attends a get-rich-quick seminar and runs into former one-night stand Tanya (Jane Adams). Not only does the seminar help him identify his marketable tool, but after a repeat of their first time, Tanya tells the quick-to-dash Drecker he should just sell his “big dick.” All this may sound like fate, but his initial attempts fail. A sleazy personal ad for “Big Donnie” and a disastrous first outing lead him back to Tanya. A poet, she comes up with a plan to change wham-bam Big Donnie into leading lothario, with a business proposal and instructions on how to seduce a woman.
This scenario — the down and out guy entering unfamiliar territory for redemption, most recently seen in USA’s Royal Pains — is stale, even if it’s granted a certain topicality by the current recession. Thus, the show must depend entirely on the sex industry context as a source for originality. Indeed, one might imagine this context to be quite compelling if only Drecker weren’t quite so incompetent.
It’s clear that the man knows how to fuck; what he can’t do is engage in basic communication. This lack of skills creates dramatic frictions between Drecker and his family — ex-wife Jessica (Anne Heche) and teenaged kids Damon (Charlie Saxton) and Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) — and comic conflicts with his new clients. The problem is, the jokes are less than funny and the drama isn’t engaging. The most intriguing character is Jessica, a former beauty queen who appears to have come straight out of the Real Housewives franchise. Although she’s an easy-to-spot foil for Drecker, materialistic and vapid, she also possesses a rudimentary emotional depth, displaying rage, disgust, and despair in equal measure.
Ultimately, Hung isn’t so much about Drecker’s penis as it is about his maturation. As Drecker begins to experience success as a gigolo, he learns sensitivity and empathy, and considering what a dumbass he is to begin with, the potential for growth is immense. In fact, the show might easily be titled Hung: Better Living through Prostitution.
As Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights showed, it is possible to make a huge dick the focal point of an artistic work and have that work be extraordinary (and no, there is no Dirk Diggler-type reveal in Hung‘s premiere episode, although James is frequently nude). But even if Ray Drecker has a lot to offer, the series, thus far, does not.