Ray Drecker has seen better days. The former hero of his high school, he married the local beauty queen and played some pro ball once upon a time, but things took a turn somewhere along the way to mid-life. Now Ray teaches basketball at his own high school, his wife has left him, and a fire in the home he grew up in means his two kids have to go stay with their mother. He's broke, his school is facing budget cuts, and he's forced to live in a tent on his back lawn until he can raise the cash to fix the fire damage. He's a nice guy, but not the sharpest tool in the shed. Luckily for him, sharpness is not necessary when you have the biggest tool. Ray is, as they say, Hung.
Hung has been a sleeper hit for HBO, and as the second season is being readied to premiere this summer, the network is releasing The Complete First Season on DVD so viewers can get caught up. The imminently likable Thomas Jane (The Mist) stars as Drecker, and as the main focus of the show, Jane makes this well-endowed underdog a strange kind of hero, one worth rooting for.
The essential plot is that Ray starts taking business-minded motivational classes to try to drum up some inspiration about how to score the green he needs. At the seminars, he runs into a former one-night stand, a poet named Tanya (Jane Adams, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) who used to come speak to Ray's history class. They once again fall into the sack together, and when Ray is on his way out the door following the deed, Tanya makes an off-hand comment that the only good thing about him is his penis. This gets Ray thinking, and the next thing you know, he's Googling ways to make money with his member. Eventually, Tanya comes on board as his pimp, rebranding Ray as a "happiness consultant" and marketing him to lonely ladies with disposable income.
Unsurprisingly, there is a learning curve to the hustler business. Getting customers is one of the biggest obstacles. Tanya knows a personal shopper and lifestyle coach who hooks them up with a couple of early takers, though Lenore is a piece of work that tears through everything like a tornado. She insists on sampling Ray before recommending him, and their night, which is also Ray's first job, goes in some strange directions. Lenore is played by Rebecca Creskoff, and she turns in the kind of performance that transforms a supporting role into an essential, must-watch component. By the end of The Complete First Season, Lenore is becoming a much more active player, a villainous partner to the hippy-dippy Tanya.
The center of The Complete First Season involves Ray learning how to please women, and his major client is a woman named Jemma (Justified's Natalie Zea), who is looking for more of a Boyfriend Experience than wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am. Having to figure out what Jemma wants is humbling for Ray--though not humiliating. My knee-jerk comparison for Hung is that this is a male version of Weeds, but without the ludicrous plot machinations or the annoying habit of endlessly degrading its central character. Hung was created by Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson, the team behind The Riches, a series I mildly enjoyed but that often let the concept get in the way of the characters. That is not a problem with Hung, where the plot never overtakes the participants. Part of this might be credited to executive producer Alexander Payne, known for directing such human comedies as Sideways and About Schmidt. Payne sets the tone for Hung by directing the first episode, and the shows that follow have the hallmarks of his work: empathy for the characters and a healthy respect for their personal delusions, which creates a safe environment for them to grow beyond their own misconceptions.
Again, Thomas Jane's immense likability is an integral part of what makes that sympathy for Ray work. He understands that Ray is a character at a crossroads. The cocky jock is suffering multiple blows to his ego, but Jane maintains the fighting spirit that made Ray a champion in the past. In the fire scene, we see his trophies melt, a symbol of his withering achievements; yet, Ray doesn't give up. Not on himself, not on his family. His efforts regularly yield comedy, but the show's heart is always in the right place.
The family subplots are actually the only element that doesn't quite work about Hung: The Complete First Season. Anne Heche plays Ray's ex-wife Jessica, who is now married to a mousey, overcompensating dermatologist (Eddie Jemison, from the Oceans movies). Due to the housefire, Ray and Jessica's twin teenaged children, Damon and Darby (Charlie Saxton and Sianoa Smit-McPhee), move in with their mother and stepdad. Jessica spends much of the season trying to bond with the kids while also trying to prove to her husband that she didn't marry him for his money. This stuff largely seems extraneous, though it does pay off to a degree in forcing Ray to ponder what he did to lose Jessica to a guy so unlike himself. The relationship with Jessica also provides The Complete First Season with a poignant and surprising finale. Most season closers go for the big cliffhanger, something over the top enough to make viewers hunger for the show's return. Not so with Hung. The writers go the other way, providing a finale that is far more emotionally satisfying and stays true to the show's tone. No shocks here, just good storytelling.
Given Hung's central concept, you really got to give it to the showmakers that they managed to make a classy drama out of it rather than getting all cute about the show's natural assets. Again to compare it to Weeds, Hung could have constantly kept reminding us of how outrageous the scenario is, giving a "Look, this suburban dad is now a gigolo!" wink every five minutes the way Weeds goes out of its way to make sure that we remember it's about a mom selling marijuana. If that were all Hung were, it would likely burn out just as quickly as Weeds did. Instead, Lipkin, Burson, and Payne have created a story about real people who will grow and change and whom we can continue to care about as they do, rather than growing annoyed as they sink deeper into increasingly less-believable plot twists. This is television that transcends gimmicks. Just like Ray's customers, I am satisfied enough to keep coming back.
Hung: The Complete First Season has ten half-hour shows, with an extended-length pilot. The programs were shot in widescreen and the anamorphic transfers on the DVD look excellent. The resolution is sharp and the rendering clear and colorful.
The main soundtrack is in English and mixed in 5.1. The soundtrack sounds great, with some nice inter-speaker effects. There aren't a ton, but enough to give the show a good audio landscape.
Dubs include a French 5.1 track and a Spanish 2.0 track, and there are also subtitles for all three featured languages.
This two-disc set comes nicely packaged in a foldable book with an outer slipcover. The book has photos and a listing of the different episodes. There are five episodes on each disc, with a play-all function as well as individual menus for each episode. A "previously on" clip can be accessed in those individual menus. DVD 2 also has a full episode guide.
DVD 1 has audio commentaries by series creators Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson on episodes 1 and 4, and the pair is joined for episode 8 on DVD 2 by writer Brett C. Leonard. I am glad they chose to do tracks for just important episodes and not the whole season. This keeps the talks focused and avoids overkill.
DVD 2 also has featurettes: the standard behind-the-scenes "About Hung" (9 minutes, 35 seconds); "The Women of Hung" (7:17), focusing on the female characters in the show and how Ray interacts with them; and finally, two short promos, "Ray and Tanya's Personal Ads." These are commercials for the series in the form of fake commercials created by the characters to advertise Ray's services.
Hung: The Complete First Season is another winner in the HBO line-up. Starring Thomas Jane as a down-on-his-luck father and teacher who turns to being a gigolo in order to pay his bills, the series takes a surprisingly high road, walking far above its gimmicky concept in order to present honest characters dealing with real choices. It's funny and poignant, and Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.