Hung: HBO Series, Created by Alexander Payne

HBO is known for its audacious and racy programming, so when “Hung,” the new series, executive-produced by Alexander Payne, was announced, not many eyebrows were raised about its premise, which is based on the single-word title.


Co-created by Dmitri Lipkin (“TV’s “The Riches”) and Colette Burson, the serio, darkly humorous show, premiering this Sunday (June 28) stars Thomas Jane (better known for the actioner “The Punisher”) as Ray Drecker, an attractive middle-aged guy who’s down on his luck.  A failed pro athlete, Ray is utterly bored in his job as a high-school coach, representing a man who desperately yearned for the American Dream. 


Moreover, Ray’s two-decade marriage has ended badly and his ex-wife Jessica (Anne Heche, in a shrewish mode) has married a rich guy, Dr. Ronnie Haxon (Eddie Jemison), whose very presence makes Ray feel inferior—except in one department in which he is unbeatable: He’s SO well-endowed.


At first glance, the premise—Ray’s huge penis—sounds simple but seductive, sleazy and a bit manipulative, trying to cash in on the frank talk about sex that “Sex and the City” and other shows introduced a decade ago, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s terrific look at the porn world of yeteryear, “Boogie Nights.”


There’s a clear linkage to Anderson’s 1997 epic feature not only in the title of the fictional protag, Dirk Diggler (played by Mark Wahlberg), but also due to the fact that Thomas Jane had a major role in that picture, not to mention the last scene of the movie in which Wahlberg exposes his 13-inch-penis in front of the mirror (and the audience).


There’s no frontal nudity of Jane in “Hung,” but he has plenty of opportunities to display his muscular torso, and references to his sex organ are made in almost every scene, sometimes seriously, sometimes jokingly and sometimes ironically.


Based on the pilot, it’s still hard to predict the future of the series.  I have seen the one-hour pilot and the next three episodes (which will be half-an-hour each on Sunday evening at 10pm) and my first reaction is that the acting of Thomas Jane and Jane Adams as his pimp is terrific, but the tone is rather awkward and needs fine-tuning, and the narrative is a tad too rambling.


But rest assure that the series is not exploitational. What gives it poignancy and edge is its timely issue of downward mobility in harsh economic times, as experienced by a bright and handsome middle-class white guy.  In this respect, “Hung” very much reflects the zeitgeist.


It also has something to say about the changing nature of American family.  Ray would like to spend more time with his two teenage children (Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Charlie Saxton), but their mother has the upper hand.


In voice-over narration, Ray relates how his life was thrown into a major crisis, when his house burned down in a freak fire, forcing him to sleep in an orange tent, and in an act of semi-protest, to urinate in the lake that belongs to his irritable neighbor, who actually calls the police.


Turning point occurs when Ray meets and has a one-night stand with a neurotic but vulnerable poet named Tanya (the great character actress Jane Adams).  There’s no romantic or erotic spark between them, but looking to get out of her dead-end job as a proofreader, Tanya realizes the possibilities inherent in going into business with Ray, based on his equipment.  Her plan is to make their service distinguished and distinctive, by designating themselves as “happiness consultants,” rather than being just another “escort” agency.


The dialogue of the pilot is uneven, containing witty observations, such as Ray noting that “You have to make do with whatever gift God gave you,” to more obvious and blatant comments as heard in the seminar that Ray and Tanya are attending: “If you want success, you have to identify your own tool.”

The pilot was directed by Alexander Payne, a satirist of Middle-America mores and manners (“Sideways,” Election,” “About Schmidt”), who might have deliberately chosen a variegated tone that is bitter-sweet, wry and funny, but is not as facile or pleasing as that of “Sex and the City.”


Who will see the show?  Single young and middle-aged women, who will not be offended by the premise, guys both straight and gay, viewers who like the more adult and sophisticated fare shown on HBO.  Without spoiling the fun, let me just say that the title of the second episode is “Great Sausage, or Can I Call You Dick?”