In the past week at the Television Critics Association press tour for Hung, the battle over the show broke out in earnest (insofar as any battle that breaks out on Twitter can be described as “earnest”). The series’ boosters (such as myself) think that it’s a wonderfully wry take on how the economic crisis has forced some outside-the-box thinking. The show’s detractors think it’s a pretentious, smug bit of coasting from HBO, a show that thinks it’s saying more than it actually is, particularly in its decision to not show Ray’s penis.
The producers’ answer as to why they won’t show that penis in the series – yet – is something that seems carefully calculated to please the former group and infuriate the latter. They won’t show it because to see it would kill the mystique of Ray’s perfect penis (not least of which is because it would almost certainly have to be a prosthesis – no offense, Thomas Jane!), which is supposed to be exactly what all of his clients need to see and must, therefore, remain in the imagination. I don’t think the detractors are wrong, necessarily, when they say that not showing the penis is a problem on a show (and a network) that features such callously employed female nudity. This clearly seems to be a double standard, at least, that is, until you consider that maybe the aims of the show and the aims of the network aren’t necessarily in sync.
Let me explain.
The HBO house style is one that tends to filter all of its shows through the faux-naturalism of the American independent film scene. The Sopranos, which was largely responsible for this style, was a mob series, yes, but it also was one with long, contemplative shots of the characters in repose or the natural settings their chaos existed in. Since then, the only series to deliberately step away from this realistic filming style on the network have been Big Love, with its Day-Glo color scheme and over-the-top soap storytelling; Flight of the Conchords, with its bizarre tweaking of the standard sitcom template; and True Blood, with its … uh … well, I’m not sure quite how to describe that show’s cinematic stylings. It’s interesting to consider just how thoroughly The Sopranos has dominated HBO’s style because it wasn’t just that show that led to the network’s rise to prominence. Sex and the City also played a vital part in how the network rose, but that series and its fairy tale-esque look at New York City haven’t really been copied on the network. That tone, instead, has mostly migrated to ABC and its subsidiaries.
Perhaps this all came about because Sex and the City hasn’t aged particularly well. Perhaps it came about because, as acclaimed as Sex and the City was, it was never as acclaimed as The Sopranos (which got all of that “Best TV Series in History” stuff when it retired). Perhaps it came about because it’s easier to execute the faux-realism tone on a TV budget and you don’t have to be particularly creative to half-ass it (whereas you really have to commit to the fairy tale tone). I have no idea why HBO gave itself over so thoroughly to that tone, but when even Carnivale, a series that cried out for a fairy tale tone in the direction, is pretty much a series that plays the idea of a bunch of mystical carnies traveling through the Dust Bowl of the United States straight-up for the most part, you know the network’s really embraced that tone as its thing. (This is not to say that a genre series can’t do The Sopranos thing and do it well. Exhibit A: Battlestar Galactica. But my larger point remains.)
Enter Hung. For as much as people have described Entourage as the male Sex and the City, I think Hung fits the bill even more (and I swear this is not an insult; Sex and the City was good for what it did, even if what it did wasn’t really my thing). Because Hung, for all of its nods toward realism and toward the current economic situation in the United States, is actually a fairy tale at its heart, just like Sex and the City was. If nothing else, “Do It, Monkey” makes this point fairly explicit. Floyd is in the “money creation” business, when you can’t actually create money, though doing so is the aim of many fairy tales. Jemma aims to be a damsel in distress, insisting that Ray play out her rescue time after time until he gets her fantasy just right. Jessica hopes that by caring for a dying dog, she can reconnect with her kids and maybe even herself, while her husband turns into something akin to a fairy tale villain by just callously disregarding her feelings and having it put down (one of the few missteps in this otherwise very fine episode). The Detroit the characters exist in is like a land of ashes that in a fairy tale must be restored to its former glory. Hell, the entire series is built around the idea that Ray can use the special gift he never knew he had to ride out the recession and that the attempt in doing so will unlock special gifts within Tanya that she never knew she had, just like in Wizard of Oz. The very idea of a Happiness Consultant, someone who can bring you the happiness you think you deserve as easily as they might deliver cookies in a box, is like something out of a fairy tale. And in that context, the idea of an ideal penis that is everything to everyone makes a lot more sense.
So if Hung is a series about characters trying to tamp down reality by engaging in fantasy, it almost feels like it should engage in some of the fantastical tricks used on a series like Big Love (which manages walking the line between reality and religious fervor much better than Hung manages its line-walking) or even on a straight-up fairy tale series like Pushing Daisies. Certainly the show wouldn’t be as brutally able to shove our faces in the material of what Ray actually does on a network like ABC, but the tonal match might allow the show to go further over-the-top, to show us how, like Ned’s ability to restore life through a single touch, Ray’s ability to restore happiness with one big dick brings something akin to joy into the life of his clients.
And yet, I’m not sure it’s the wrong choice for this series to be on HBO either. For one thing, HBO gave the production the freedom to film in Michigan, and the series is making great use of those locations. For another, the uneasy tension between fantasy and reality inherent in the show’s premise is essentially playing out on a meta-scale within the show itself, as the series struggles, somewhat, with the network it’s been placed on. Seeing how the realistic film style of the typical HBO series clashes with the fantasy-laden scripts of the series is becoming one of its chief pleasures (like how that perfect beach Ray took Jemma to on their “date” was marred by that ancient, rotting lifeguard tower on the frame’s right). And it’s not as though it doesn’t complement one of the show’s other chief virtues.
If Hung is a series about how everyone’s just trying to keep their heads down to get through the recession (sometimes heartlessly, as in the case of Jessica’s husband), the meta-conflict at its center is like a miniaturization of the conflict we’ve been playing out in our own country over the past 40 years or so. We fantasized for a long time that we could have it all, but reality eventually came calling. There was no way to create the money we needed to live our lives, and now it’s all falling apart around us, even as we cling to new hopes and new dreams. Hung is, yes, a fairy tale about great sex saving the world, but it’s also a realistic series about how that can’t fix everything. That the two occupy the same series in an uneasy chemistry makes the show all the more fascinating.
- Yeah, yeah, yeah. I said virtually nothing about the episode. Let me say this: Jessica’s mother is hilarious and reminds me of my German grandmother. “If he'd really lost his money, he'd be stabbing his heart with a knife.” Awesome.
- Apparently Rhea Perlman was in this episode? She must be the voice of Tanya’s mom on the other end of the phone. Nice to see her getting work.
- This was my first time seeing the credits sequence. One thing I do like about HBO is its commitment to opening credits sequences, and this one is a nice, bluesy riff on the central premise.
- I have never really liked Natalie Zea, but I liked her as Jemma, and it’s nice to see she’ll be in further episodes.