When the series was announced, “Hung” sounded like a one-note, made-for-pay-TV joke — indulging director Alexander Payne and company to engage in a bit of “Boogie Nights” humor. Yet the series that emerges proves not only timely in its look at a member of Detroit’s disappearing middle class but, in addition to being wryly funny, shows off an unexpected organ — the one generally associated with love, not lust. Boasting fine performances by Thomas Jane and Jane Adams, coupled with sharp writing, “Hung” really does offer those willing to pay for it (HBO, that is) a bountiful package.
What makes the series work, ultimately, is a very shrewd choice — namely, that far from the he-men he’s played in the past (see “The Punisher” and “Deep Blue Sea”), Jane’s Ray Drecker is a bit of a mess. Living in Detroit, he speaks in voiceover about the lost American dream that his parents seemed to enjoy and bitches about adjustable-rate mortgages.
Divorced from an ex-wife (Anne Heche) who has left him and married a wealthier guy, he’s struggling to get by as a high-school basketball coach — one with kidney stones and condescending neighbors — when he experiences a freak house fire. Desperate for cash, he enrolls in a get-rich-quick seminar where he reconnects with a struggling poet (as if there’s another kind), Tanya (Adams), who can’t resist again sampling his ample merchandise.
Almost by accident, Tanya suggests that Ray “market your dick,” and with the seminar adviser talking about finding “your winning tool,” you can almost see the lightbulb materialize above his head. Ah, but where to start, and, with Tanya’s help, how to develop a clientele?
Thanks to the bittersweet but consistently amusing tone (Payne directed the oversized premiere, which gives way to half-hour episodes), “Hung” bears scant resemblance to “Midnight Cowboy.” Created by Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin (“The Riches”), it’s rather a rueful look at the lengths to which one guy will go to recapture a life — the one that seemed possible when he was a high-school jock — that has gradually slipped away from him.
Think “Breaking Bad” meeting the tough-luck teacher of Payne’s “Election” — only here, the former’s marketable product isn’t cooked up in a lab.
Not all the elements work equally well, beginning with Heche as Ray’s ex, who manages to be both shrewish and needy in trying to buy their kids’ affection. Both she and their rebellious teens are a trifle too broad for a show that actually begins from a place of realism, its absurdist premise notwithstanding.
They represent a small part of the whole, however, and the combination of Jane and Adams proves top-notch — each of them equally damaged, desperate and confused. Their interplay, the willingness to let the story gradually unfold and the project’s disarming sensitivity (exemplified via a splendid fourth-episode guest shot by Margo Martindale) helps elevate “Hung” well above its gimmicky title — and gives HBO another improbable series that actually looks well worth hanging onto.