On "Hung," HBO's sardonic sign-of-the-times sex farce of sorts, the pimping service aging former high school hero Ray Drecker works for is called "Happiness Consultants."
The name, meant to be euphemistic, is more of a misnomer: With the show set to begin its third season Sunday, it's clear that none of the characters – especially Ray – is particularly happy.
It's been a little over a year since the last episode of the serio-comic portrait of a man reduced to getting by on the attribute referred to in the show's title. But "Hung" still shapes up as perhaps TV's best measure of the states of the economy and the modern male-female dynamic.
On the surface, Ray (Thomas Jane) seems to be living a male fantasy: getting paid to sleep with (mostly) attractive women. But in reality, he's wallowing in the charred remnants of his American Dream.
Ray, who turned to prostitution to finance the rebuilding of his burned down lifelong family home, just lost his measly, if steady paycheck as a teacher and coach at his hometown high school in depressed Detroit. He has two women – both unlikely pimps – fighting over his employ. He's working hard to win back his shallow ex-wife who left him for the security offered by a dull dermatologist, and to keep his Goth aficionado teenage kids from falling into a nihilistic abyss.
But the show about a fortysomething male prostitute is as much – if not more – about the women vying to, in one way or another, run Ray's life. The sentimental Ray's loyalty is to Tanya (Jane Adams), a neurotic failed New Age-y poet whose best move may be seeking out an old-school pimp (Lennie James) as her mentor. She needs the tough tutelage to battle her slick rival, Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff), a vain and supremely confident paid friend to rich ladies who fights dirty.
The stakes in the duo's ongoing power struggle are raised this season as Ray faces competition from a stud half his age – enlisted by Lenore – bent on stealing his customers.
The show, while not a huge critical or ratings hit, is one of our favorites if only because it cleverly defies expectations at nearly every turn. The steamy bedroom scenes can play as decidedly unsexy given the underlying sense of desperation that permeates the action. That's a tribute to strong writing and fine actors who imbue what easily could become cartoonish characters with a very human sense of sadness, while extracting alternately irreverent and bittersweet humor from an offbeat premise.
The primary title of Sunday's opener is "Don't Give up on Detroit," which offers a rare glimmer of hope as Ray has to start wondering whether he's being hung out to dry.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.