Here’s something I’ve been pondering a lot lately: Does a comedy need to make you laugh? Or can a wry tone or a certain sardonic sense be enough to distinguish it as a “comedy” from darker dramas? I’ve been thinking about this because the summer has been positively filled with series that are “funny,” in the sense that you recognize that the situations happening are inherently humorous, and the humor synapses in your brain fire, but they never quite get all the way down to the lungs to make you bust out in laughter. For example, you have Weeds, which has sort of always had this issue, but now you have Nurse Jackie and Hung, too. Seemingly every cable comedy that debuts nowadays is more interested in making you smile wryly than in making you laugh, as though they’re too cool to get down in the muck with the goofy stuff that really makes you giggle with delight.
I’ve come to think of this as the Office vs. 30 Rock dichotomy, though this is a bit of a misnomer, since The Office is very, very funny much of the time. But when forced to, The Office will always go for the story or character beat over the big laugh, while 30 Rock will always go for the big laugh over the story or character beat. As someone who typically prefers good storytelling and solid character development over all else, I’ve typically been an Office partisan, but the more shows I watch this summer that are just not actively trying to be funny but, rather, to build interesting characters and worlds, the more I wonder if this approach, too, has its limits.
The big beef that’s been expressed against Hung this whole first season is that it’s just not very funny. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, particularly on a performance level. Thomas Jane and Jane Adams have both done some really terrific physical comedy work (like Jane’s dance back in the early episodes, or the way Adams over-reacts to seemingly everything), and they’re occasionally given some choice lines to spit out. But in many ways, Hung’s overriding tone is one of loss and sadness, one of both a once great man and a once great empire seeing their decline in the face of the world changing inexorably and beyond their grasps. To reverse that decline, both dive into unsustainable fantasies, but when the checks come due, you either have to change and embrace that things are gonna be tough for a while or disappear even farther into your own ludicrous dreams. That all of this is going on underneath the surface of a show about a dude with a seemingly magical penis is really thematically rich, but, no, it didn’t really make me laugh a good deal. For me, I guess, that’s pretty much OK, but for you, it may not be. (And, to be fair, since the show took last week off, I nearly forgot it was on tonight, only remembering it was when there was a minor explosion of excitement over True Blood across the Internets.)
At the same time, tonight’s finale gave the sense that everything has been put into place for a really terrific second season. It’s, as my wife said, as though the series just had an occasionally rough preseason and is ready for the real thing to begin sometime next year. I respect the show’s idea to track the process of how Ray and Tanya become a prostitute and pimp respectively, but there’s also a sense that after the first handful of episodes, the series ended up spinning its wheels somewhat, as Tanya just wasn’t ready to be as tough as she needed to be to be a pimp and Ray kept getting trapped in increasingly strange sexual encounters with the undersexed women of Detroit. After that early scene with Molly, I thought the series might turn out to be unexpectedly sweet, but it’s rather abandoned that tone for the most part as the season has gone on, as if it suddenly realized that being a prostitute ain’t all sunshine and roses.
Yet I really liked this finale. I thought it put all of the characters into interesting places and resolved most of the long-boiling plotlines that have run throughout the season, like the relationship between Lenore and Tanya and her attempts to lure Ray over to her side, which get as far as Ray going to a hotel where he discovers that his partner is to be Jessica (and more on this later). While we don’t get that official scene where Ray and Tanya make up and he ditches Lenore, we may as well have, since there’s no way Lenore’s going to be OK with him walking out on a hook-up and that final scene – of Tanya smacking a fly with the book Women Who Run With Wolves may as well have just had Adams stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Jane Adams. I play Tanya, and I’ll be taking charge next season.”
Infestations run heavily throughout the episode as a symbol. Tanya’s place is now filled with flies, while Ray discovers that absent bees have left behind honeycombs in the walls of his burned out house. What did all of this mean? I’m honestly not sure, but I think it’s a visual representation of just how much pests have cropped up to get in the way of Ray and Tanya’s best-laid plans. That Tanya, gentle Tanya, ends the episode by smashing one of the flies with a willful look on her face and that Ray uses the bees to get some (in a sequence that actually bordered on the exploitative on a show that’s done its best to avoid being so so far) suggests that the two may have the problem-solving approaches needed to figure all of this out after all in the end.
All of this culminated in that really wonderful little scene where Ray called Jessica on the phone, to let her know that he thought she was a good mother, just to talk to her and have an honest, candid conversation about their relationship and who they were as people. Granted, he was only doing this because he’d spied her heading up to the hotel room where the two were to have sex (without her knowing about his occupation), but the conversation played so many different notes and hit on so many different beats that it was almost impossible to figure out if Ray was going to go through with the encounter or walk away from it, his hand hovering to knock on the door. It was perhaps Thomas Jane’s finest moment on the show, and even if it was easy to predict from the moment Jessica met Lenore where all of this was going to go, it wasn’t easy to predict just how heartfelt the scene that resulted would feel.
Which brings us back to the question of whether a comedy need be hysterically funny to be worthwhile. I suspect that for most people, the answer is going to be, “Yeah, I need to laugh a lot when I’m watching a comedy.” And, obviously, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But in the end, I’ll take a show that turns out a few surprising and well-wrought little scenes between its characters (like the Ray and Jessica scene or the scene between the teenagers) over a show that just goes for broke on hilarity 95% of the time. To steal a phrase, comedy is easy. Character is hard.
- That scene between the teenagers was maybe the first this season where they’ve felt thematically relevant to what’s going on.
- While I say all of this, this is not to say that the show could not improve next season. What are some things you’d like to see shaped up or fixed in season two? I, for one, would like to see the show abandon some of the push-and-pull over just how one might start a business like this (which largely ended up with us in the same place we started in in this episode) and embrace the kooky fantastical aspect most of the sexual encounters have had.
- On the other hand, that scene where Ronnie is examining the girl he knew in high school’s odd mole just felt a little too much like the show trying to give Jessica another out from her marriage.
- The plot at Ray's school is finally picking up a bit, with the list of teachers who will lose their jobs, then be forced to reapply and get them back sans benefits. It'd all sound a little unbelievable if I hadn't just read a news article about schools doing this this week. Way to be topical, Hung.