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Illustration for article titled iHung/i: Strange Friends or The Truth Is, Youre Sexy
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What makes the characters in Hung so interesting is that they’re all backed into corners, often corners of their own making. Ray has been left with basically no options in the wake of his house fire. Tonya is not assertive enough about what she wants and lets other people steamroll her. Jessica is just beginning to realize that she’s been, too often, a completely awful person and attempts to make up for that now are backfiring all over the place, as her kids and ex-husband are still skeptical of her attempts to better her life. The only person who doesn’t seem to have these sorts of problems is Ray’s cocky next-door neighbor, Howard Koontz, who’s the only character the show seems to regard with absolutely no level of sympathy. Even way-too-into-herself Lenore is imprisoned, to a degree, by her control freak impulses.

If by the third episode of a show, a series isn’t trying to deepen its characters in any way, I’m usually tempted to bail. It’s fine to sketch in some of the characters in the first and second episodes, when the focus tends to be on making sure the main characters and premise are in place. But by week three, a show is distinguishing itself by just how well it does or doesn’t fill in those tricky supporting characters, who make or break the believability of the world the show is set in. Hung has established Ray and Tonya as interesting, believable people with goals forced on them by circumstances beyond their controls. It’s been a little more haphazard with the people around the edges of the show, but “Strange Friends” starts to deepen these people. Except for Koontz. He’s just an asshole.

Jessica, who takes up a tiny, tiny amount of screen time this week, seems to get the most improvement. Last week, her attempts to better herself were damaged by the show choosing to show us erupting at a maid and taking Botox injections, both stereotypical things series do when they want to show you that a woman of a certain age has interest only in herself. Anne Heche, of course, plays this sort of role very well, but it felt way too reductive for that character, as though the show was only interested in making us laugh at her. This week’s Jessica storyline, added on to the scenes where she genuinely seemed concerned about how she came off to the world last week, did what it could to improve upon that.

Jessica sees one of those ads on TV about how there are animals in need who have to find loving homes (the look on Heche’s face as she watches the commercial is fantastically overwrought – both hilarious and sad). Looking for a way to assuage her guilt about just who she is and to make her kids think she’s cool again Jessica goes down to the local shelter and picks up an old, abused service dog, who spends its entire time lying down on newspaper, wetting herself. But Jessica seems genuinely compassionate toward the animal, and that seems to come through to her kids, who both help their mother pet the dog. It’s a small step, both toward Jessica improving her relationship with her kids and the show portraying Jessica as a person who’s aware of the carnage she’s left in her wake, but it’s an important one.

Ray and Tonya are trying to deal with their own form of carnage, as Lenore not only stole Ray’s wallet after their encounter in the last episode but also took all of the cash out of it and maxed out Ray’s credit cards. (When Ray asks, “I fucked that bitch for free?” Tonya points out that that’s misogynistic, just another way the show is perfectly defining the relationship between the two.) The entire episode involves showing just how much Tonya doesn’t stand up for herself, how she’s unable to lash out at the world like Ray is (when he continues to urinate in the lake). Her final call with Lenore, where she finally lets Lenore know just how badly she’s treated both Tonya and Ray, would normally be the sort of scene where her explosion led to her finally reclaiming just a bit of her dignity and letting Lenore know who was boss. But, instead, Lenore, oblivious to everyone but herself as always, got one over on Tonya yet again. I’d be a bit concerned about how this show viewed women were it not for Tonya (and the increased focus on Jessica’s self-awareness), and the portrayal of her inability to really define herself is turning into the best thing about the show.

Hung’s also revealing a real conservative streak through Ray, who’s the series’ point-of-view character most of the time. It’s not conservative in the sense we think of conservatives nowadays. It’s an old-school conservative streak, sort of a libertarian streak. Ray’s mostly upset by how the country has abandoned what he sees as the live and let live streak of his parents’ day. Why, you can’t even piss in the lake anymore, and the zoning codes keep you from living on your yard in your tent if you want to. Every time you want to do anything, you have to put up with the man sticking his nose into your business. Weren’t things simpler when you could do whatever you wanted? (Arguably, this point-of-view is complicated by the Tonya character, who tends to be overrun by people doing whatever they want, which is another way that Hung is growing its universe and point-of-view quietly and consistently.)

The episode hinges on the question of whether or not Ray and Tonya can keep working together, which is the only reason it’s not quite as good as it could be. Of course Ray and Tonya are going to keep working together! There’s no show if they don’t! But while this could have felt like false drama, the series used it to get at deeper questions. Can Ray keep doing this work, even if it seems to constantly expose him to the sorts of indignities he doesn’t like being exposed to? And can Tonya make herself be assertive enough to pull off the trickier aspects of being a pimp? The episode ends with Lenore giving Tonya a few numbers for potential clients, so the two of them are going to have to find out pretty soon.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Happiness Consultants is apparently turning to guerilla marketing. Not sure that’s the best way for them to get their message out there, but it made for an arresting image.
  • That whole scene where Ray decided he would fix the house himself, then went to relieve himself in the lake again, was really well constructed, from the setting sun coloring the horizon to the piano music on the soundtrack to Ray’s tent glowing like a beacon in the background of the scene. Just a nice little piece of work.
  • Didn’t comment on the plotline with the neighbors because I’m not terribly certain where it’s going, and Koontz is just too much of an unctuous asshole to be completely believable.
  • “Fuck you! I am an excellent pimp!”

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