Friday, September 18, 2009

Working Stiff

With its inaugural season complete, we can now see (on re-runs, among other ways) that class, not sex, was at the center of HBO's Hung

When HBO began running ads promoting its new comedy series Hung this summer, its high-concept appeal was immediately evident on two levels. First, in making a show on the subject of prostitution, the network would be able to handle a topic, visually and otherwise, that could not be easily depicted on conventional network television or basic cable. Second, by making the show about male prostitution, it would offer a twist that would invite the kind of curious viewer essential for the show's initial viewership. Naturally, the fate of the program would depend on a series of factors, among them the quality of the writing and acting (which are very good). But having a clear -- and, not incidentally, titillating -- premise is always a good strategy in trying to launch a successful series.

It turns out that Hung, which just finished its first season, is a huge success. It is the most successful freshman series in HBO history, last Sunday's finale drawing almost three million viewers for the initial broadcast and an estimated nine million when counting replays, on-demand, and DVR viewing. While these are not Sopranos level -- or, for that matter, True Blood
level -- numbers, they do secure the show's short-term future and bolster the image of HBO as a bastion of innovative and appealing television. (The show has been renewed for a second season.)

Yet having watched all ten episodes in the inaugural season, I've been surprised to conclude the show is less about sex that it is about class. And that its message is subtly disturbing in a way that rattles me far more than its presumably provocative premise.

For those of you who haven't seen it: Hung tells the story of Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), a former star athlete in Michigan whose glory days are long behind him. He's now a coach and history teacher at his high school alma mater. His wife Jessica (Anne Heche) has just left him, and at the start of the first episode, the uninsured childhood house he inherited burns down, leaving him without a home and depriving him of custody of his teenage children. Financially desperate -- he now sleeps in a tent in his backyard -- Ray casts about for a sideline source of income, which leads him to cross paths with an office worker named Tanya Skagel (Jane Adams) at a lame small business seminar. After an unsatisfying tryst, Tanya proposes to Ray that they take advantage of his nevertheless impressive reproductive endowment, and form a company with the name "Happiness Consultants" as a way of providing safe, unthreatening sexual services to well-to-do suburban women.

The plotlines of subsequent episodes center on the pair's misadventures as they embark on a wobbly commercial enterprise whose returns are uncertain at best. There are also a series of subplots to supplement this main narrative line, among them Ray's relationship with his ex-wife and children (though not quite explicit, it appears understood that his son is gay); the feminist Tanya's attempt to find satisfaction in her work and love; and Ray's literal and figurative attempts to rebuilt his home, which financial constraints force him to undertake by himself and in the shadow of a rich, petty neighbor (and his randy wife).

I don't think anybody who watches this show would ever believe that it is a realistic depiction of what the sex industry is really like; indeed, the characters themselves see their project as an effort to capture a lucrative market niche. But in the determinedly unglamorous, frustrating, and at times embarrassing depiction of their enterprise, I suspect the show tells truths that those in the business would find grimly amusing. In any case, Pretty Man this isn't.

An even weirder, twist, though, are the oddly appealing sets for the show, which was clearly shot in and around Detroit. The tourism board for Michigan and the Motor City (yes, there is one) can only be pleased about the way the region is depicted, which captures both its grit and its gorgeous Great Lake landscapes, as well as its more prosaic, but nevertheless relatively prosperous, suburban schools and retail establishments. Despite the glossy sheen, however, dark economic clouds loom large over the show, and financial security is elusive even for some of the well-to-do minor characters. I happened to be in the area myself for the first time myself last year, and was struck by this sense of tension, of outward order that doesn't quite conceal incipient distress.

But the social realism of the show does not come from any overt sense of demographic correctness; Hung is a disproportionately white series in which hourly wage-earners are conspicuously under-represented. What it does depict, with dismaying clarity, is an emerging national fear, and reality, of downward mobility. The clever double entendre in the series slogan, advertised as its website, is telling: "It's hard to make an indecent living." No one on the show goes hungry, but as the first season ends, you do find yourself wondering, right along with some of these characters, what on earth they're going to do to survive, much less maintain a middle-class standard of living. Under these circumstances, sex for money seems less quixotic than pragmatic.

The first season of Hung ends on an surprisingly hopeful mood given the objective circumstances in which Ray finds himself as the finale concludes. One senses that his new job may yet pay off in a way it has not to date, and that his house will be resurrected. But of course no television series can prosper unless its characters are subject to conflict, for which there are multiple prospects in a second season. There's a sometimes distasteful, if not tawdry, quality to Hung that makes me restless, and there are times when I find myself asking if I really want to watch it. But I suspect the answer to that question should be couched less a matter of what the show is doing wrong than what it is doing all too disconcertingly right. For all the improbabilities of its scenario, Hung hits a nerve and tells a truth about an American Dream whose vulnerability is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.