“Hung” Up on the American (Gigolo) Dream

HBO show about the true measure of a man makes a welcome return Sunday.

High school teacher and basketball coach Ray Drecker, the character whose defining physical attribute inspired the title for HBO's "Hung," moonlights for an outfit euphemistically called "Happiness Consultants."

But his life, as we learned in Season 1, is anything but bliss: he's struggling to rebuild his modest home after a fire. He's on the verge of losing his day job at the school where he was once a sports hero, thanks to budget cuts. He's dealing with a shallow ex-wife and two teenage kids with love-life issues of their own.

And, oh yeah, when we last left him, two novice pimps were cat-fighting over who gets to hawk his services as a male prostitute to lonely ladies.

“Hung,” we’re glad to report, returns to HBO Sunday night to further explore territory that's less "American Gigolo" than American Dream. 

The show, which takes place outside of economically devastated Detroit, is riddled with broken dreams. There's forty-something Ray (Thomas Jane), whose life never lived up to high school expectations. There's Tanya (Jane Adams), the neurotic failed poet and baker (her laminated poems baked into bread flopped), who's also not much of pimp. There's Ray's ex, Jessica (Anne Heche), whose new marriage to a dull dermatologist sours after she discovers he's in financial straits.

“Hung,” is in some respects, echoes "Men of a Certain Age," the surprising strong Ray Romano humor-infused drama from this past TV season that traces the lives of three friends struggling with aging in a time of harsh economic realities and ever-changing definitions of manhood.

But “Hung,” at times, plays on a more heightened level. Like Gypsy Rose Lee, an expert in the art of exposure, the creators of “Hung” know you’ve gotta have a gimmick.

Still, the show, whose premise portended a (long) one-note joke, quickly established itself as a quality program that’s less about sex than nagging sadness and uncertainty.

Strong writing and acting provided some great Season 1 moments: a drunken Ray hitting baseballs hurled by an old rival whose glory days also ended with high school.  Ray getting into a "relationship" with a high-powered executive who pays him a fortune to play an elaborate mind game that gives her a sense of revenge against men who dumped her in the past. He allows himself to get sucked in, and ultimately feels pain money can't quell after she discards him. Then there was the insecure Tanya melting down in front of her academician mother and snooty artsy friends when called on to read one of her poems.

The show is almost about Tanya as much it is about Ray – an odd couple who met at a crossroads after taking different paths to desperation. There are new forks in the road looming this coming season as the duo’s journey into their shared secret lives deepens.

The obnoxious Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff), old office-job nemesis of Tanya who has done well prostituting herself, in a sense, as a personal shopper and all-around-pal-for-hire for bored rich ladies, is battling to add Ray to her portfolio. Ray, out of loyalty to the ineffectual Tanya, tells the two women to work together, boding for a stormy threesome.

One of Lenore’s clients is Ray's ex-wife, who unwittingly hires him in last season’s finale. He figures out it's her in the hotel room and leaves before she sees him. What could have easily been played as a door-slamming bedroom farce, ended poignantly with Ray calling Jessica and telling her she’s a good mother.

“Hung,” which showed surprising, well, stamina, in its first season, hopefully will pick up where it left off as the show delves further into the true measure of a man – and of happiness.

No matter what his physical gifts, like most of us these days, Ray Drecker has a lot hanging over his head.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City 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.

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