Last summer, I was genuinely enjoying Hung. I remember liking the performances, and thinking the overall storyline, while a bit flabby, had some interesting thematic ideas and could become a pretty sharp and pointed take of trying to make it in an America that's gone broke. The show veered between tones wildly - it was sweet and whimsical one moment and dour the next - but the tones somehow managed to fit within the same framework, and the show never pushed too hard on them. The sweetness seemed like a relief from all of the depressing scenes. At least one episode, "The Pickle Jar," is one I still remember fondly, and looking over my grades for the show, I gave it B's and above (though never a straight-out A). Clearly I was responding to something in it.
Here's the thing, though. I gave the finale an A-, and then, apparently, promptly forgot about it. If you were to ask me what happened as Hung wound its first season to its close, it would take me a long time to remember just what that was. Over time and the course of a season where there were a lot more half-hour comedies and dramedies that hit some of the same beats as Hung to better effect, the show lost some of its luster. Sure, it could just be that time has passed, but when I try to remember other episodes of the time that I gave good grades to, I'm usually able to recall details of them with acute recognition. Outside of "The Pickle Jar" and the two central performances, Hung is mostly a big blank to me. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Forgettable fluff can be fun. But the problem is that Hung wants to be much, much more than forgettable fluff.
So I went into the second season premiere with equal parts trepidation and anticipation. I hoped the show would remind me why I liked it. I feared it would carry over some of my disinterested attitude from watching other shows and having them be, more or less, better. Somehow, the show evenly split the difference. There are things I liked about "Just the Tip," but there are things that made me think I've always been overrating this show if it's always been like this. I'm giving the episode another B, but that's largely because Thomas Jane, Jane Adams, and the other actors are all more or less pushing through the sad stuff and giving charismatic performances. Because what's on screen here doesn't match the best the show could be at all.
Let's start with the single biggest problem with "Just the Tip": There's no storyline. I usually eschew straight recaps in favor of more analysis, but in this case, I can probably give you a recap in the space of just this paragraph. Ray is being tugged between Lenore and Tanya, who are still being Lenore and Tanya, at least in terms of this business venture. At the same time, he's having trouble satisfying a pregnant client for some reason. Both Ray and Jessica are feeling a little wistful for their marriage, and that turns out to be why he can't give the pregnant lady what she wants - because he's remembering having sex with Jessica when she was pregnant and how great it was. Once he realizes this, he's able to stare wistfully toward the camera as "Fake Empire" plays. Another victory for Ray's magic penis! Also, Tanya starts consulting with a pimp played by Lennie James about how to get her business in order, Ray is going to get fired but wants to pump up his baseball team before that happens, and Ray and Jessica go bowling.
And that's it. Sure, there's an obligatory visit to Ray's kids to see what they're up to (playing video games and having romantic travails), but for the most part, the premiere is a bunch of moping. Ray and Jessica mope about their romantic troubles. Tanya mopes about getting Ray back in line. There's a long shot of a bunch of teenage actors standing in line with downcast faces as Ray tries to give them a pep-up speech that involves home foreclosures. Only Lenore seems to be having any fun, and she's barely in this episode, taking Tanya and Ray to see the famous Diego Rivera worker murals and totally misreading their intent. Even a surefire comedic scene like Tanya and her new pimp friend having a talk about getting her ho back on a leash at a place called The Donut Hole (for God's sake) just kind of sits there without any dramatic or comedic momentum.
I don't think a half-hour drama is the worst idea in the world. Indeed, one of my favorite shows on TV, In Treatment, is a half-hour drama. I also don't think a half-hour dramedy that doesn't push too hard for laughs (but has one or two every episode) but has interesting characters and situations is the worst idea in the world. Again, one of my favorite shows on TV, The United States of Tara, pretty much fits this description. The problem with Hung is that it doesn't have momentum in any direction. The closest thing to what we might call momentum in this episode is in the Jessica and Ray relationship, and those two rekindling their flame has always been pretty much a foregone conclusion based on what the show was about. If it felt like the prostitution business was GOING anywhere, even if it was going completely downhill and Tanya had to start pressuring Ray to take male clients because that's where the money is (as the pimp encourages her to do), then there'd be a sense that there's some sort of progress here. Hung clearly doesn't want to be a standalone show where Ray gets into and out of scrapes with the help of his magic penis, but it doesn't seem to have a clue about telling continuing storylines either. We're more or less where we started, with no sense that we're going to go anywhere new and different.
But, as mentioned, the performances are still a lot of fun, and the producers clearly understood what they had with Lenore, who tends to perk up whatever scene she's in. She wasn't my favorite character when she first came on the scene, but holy Hell, this show needs a dose of something to liven up all the glumness, and if it's intentionally broad comedy, I guess I'll take it. I'm going to keep watching the second season of Hung and writing it up because I'm stupid like that, but after this premiere, I don't have a great deal of hope that the show knows where it's going or, indeed, even wants to go anywhere at all.
- I do like the series' depiction of recession-ridden Detroit, a city that is perhaps too far gone to participate in whatever meager economic recovery exists. The scenes of Ray fighting for his job at the protest were well-done too, probably because the actual stakes there are easier to understand than they are in the other storylines.
- I liked Tanya a lot more as a character last season than I do this season. Back then, her insistence on figuring out, like, the psychology of prostitution was written much more perkily than it is now. Now, she just seems a little insane to still be hung up on all of this. Though, granted, a year has passed for us and not for the characters, a dichotomy that's always jarring.
- I see last year we were arguing about whether or not Ray's son is trying to sleep with his sister. Any further thoughts on this, comments section? I still don't see it.
- OK, credit where it's due, the scene where the grandma and her friend talked about Jessica and her kids was at least wryly amusing.
- "Glance to the top. You see that doughy Asian person and the mannish-woman holding rocks?"
- "I did notice the girl had big muscular fingers."
- "How do I get my prostitute to bond with me?"