Cable networks don’t have the same luxury as broadcast networks when it comes to using established hits to launch compatible new shows. With limited original programming, shorter seasons and less regimented production windows, you just can’t plan in the same way.
Ideally, HBO would want to be using “True Blood” as a lead-in for another drama with a similar tonality or a comedy with some overlap or flow. Instead, “True Blood” spent several weeks providing a wonky lead-in for “Treme” and starting on Sunday (June 27), HBO returns the comedies “Hung” and “Entourage” to the 10 p.m. hour on Sunday night, reinstating one of cable’s least compatible two-hour blocks.
Yes. I understand that there are people who like “True Blood” and also like either “Entourage” or “Hung” or both. I also understand that the rise of “True Blood” from cult favorite to mainstream hit definitely benefited both comedies last season. Still, I’ll explain after the break…
“True Blood,” no matter what I may think of its quality in any given week, is probably the most visceral show on TV. The show hits you in your loins and in your guts and, if you happen to be invested in such things, in your heart. If there’s any kind of intellectual process required or encouraged to appreciate “True Blood,” I’ve missed it completely. That’s not meant as an insult, even though I know “True Blood” fans take any slight or sarcasm as an insult. It’s just that TV shows hit you in different places. And, heck, “True Blood” often does a great job of hitting the targets it aims at. “True Blood” has an effect on viewers.
In contrast, “Hung” and “Entourage” are two of the most inert shows currently on television. Maybe “emotionally inert” is the wrong description. I mean, they’re emotionally inert for me, but your results may vary. But even if you laugh like a hyena at “Entourage” — really?!? — or you find “Hung” to be a heart-breaking exploration of what it means to be a good-looking white dude with a gigantic penis in 21st Century America, surely we can acknowledge that if “True Blood” is possibly the most visceral show on television, “Entourage” and “Hung” are possibly the two least visceral shows on television. “Entourage,” now in its seventh season, coasts along on nostalgic charm and residual good will, as it approaches 80 episodes and counting with nary a hint of dramatic stakes. And “Hung,” well “Hung” seems bound and determined to drain all mystique from Big Daddy Kane’s accurate assertion that pimpin’ ain’t easy.
I can watch the hour-long “Entourage”/”Hung” block without any reaction at all, most weeks. Because so little happens and because so little is asked of me, the hour flies by. It’s the most passive viewership imaginable. And that’s why I keep watching: Even keeping up with “Gossip Girl” or “90210” requires more effort on my part, since the pesky thing about guilty pleasure shows is that they simultaneously generate guilt and pleasure. I assure you that “True Blood” is a taxing experience each week as the red devil on my left shoulder jumps up and down with glee and the shimmering angel on my right should hides his head and wishes I’d go read a book. The angel and the devil both hibernate during “Entourage” and “Hung.”
I also watch both shows still because there are fleeting moments when “Hung” seems like a show I might like (though rarely full episodes) and there are also fleeting moments when “Entourage” reminds me of the show I once actively enjoyed.
HBO sent out the season’s first two episodes of “Entourage” and the first four episodes of “Hung” and I watched all of them.
So quick reactions, not as a formal review…
Vince is back on top! Johnny Drama’s back to being unemployed! Turtle is suddenly weirdly successful running what seems to be half-way between a brothel and a limo service! And E? Who the heck cares what E is up to?
“Entourage” just rushes along in the first couple episodes and it’s possible that this is the least I’ve ever cared about anything that was happening in any of the characters’ lives. Turtle’s business is doing well, but it also brings Dania Ramirez into the cast, which helps with eye candy but doesn’t help in the sense that Ramirez has always radiated an odd hostility as an actress, whether on “Heroes” or even in her guest appearance on “America’s Next Top Model,” where the models all had to pretend they knew who she was. Pairing Jerry Ferrara with Ramirez renders Turtle unfunny as does this particular phase of Johnny Drama’s professional destitution, so you now have all four main characters on the show not even attempting to generate laughs. The fifth major character, Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold, forgot how to be funny without Rex Lee’s Lloyd long ago and there’s bad news on that front: Lloyd is an agent now, which means he isn’t being abused by Ari, which means that suddenly neither Ari nor Lloyd is even slightly funny anymore.
By the second episode, you have some sense of where the season is going for Ari and you have some sense of a potential arc for Vince. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but for “Entourage,” it actually resembles structure and for a series in which the main character getting a haircut is supposed to constitute a series shifting development, that’s impressive.
The first episode gets a little energy boost from Nick Cassavetes, playing himself and serving a reminder that at this point, he’s more interesting as an actor than as a director, and from William Fichtner, reprising his role from last season. The episode’s pop culture references are a mixed bag of lame spitfire pop culture banalities and the occasional piece of accurate LA culture, like the appearance of a food truck, which probably officially kills that particular trend.
The second episode features the ever-welcome returns of Autumn Reeser, Perrey Reeves and Debi Mazar, plus Scott Caan, who continues to be more engaging than any of the show’s main characters. I probably should watch Caan in CBS’ new “Hawaii 5-0” pilot one of these days.
“Entourage” is “Entourage,” though. I don’t even feel any animus towards it. The show had been awful for several seasons and the first two episodes of the new season aren’t awful. No wincing at all. They’re just forgettable and disposable and not very funny.
It took “Hung” almost a full season to cease to be just That HBO Show About The Guy With the Large Cock. It took nearly a full season for the writers to stop giggling and coyly obstructing Ray Drecker’s gigantic endowments with stunt props in the same way shows are accustomed to covering up a lead actress’ pregnancy. By the end of the first season, I couldn’t really tell you what the show was about, but it ceased to just be an immature fifth grader drawing penises on a notebook.
So it’s a tiny bit disappointing that the second season premiere is titled “Just the Tip” and within 15 minutes, we’re back to celebrating Ray Drecker’s manhood and dancing around ever depicting the darned thing. Sigh.
Directed by Alexander Payne, the “Hung” pilot had a terrific sense of place. Ray Drecker was a character in and of Detroit and his particular plight was the plight of any former alpha-male in a declining urban center. As the season progressed, Detroit became less and less relevant and “Hung” became less distinctive.
Early episodes of the second season feel as if they’re trying to expand the scope of Ray’s existence again, which is a relief. Ray’s also in the process of becoming a secondary character on his own show. At least in the early going, the second season of “Hung” is at least as much about the show’s female characters as the previously central himbo. Jane Adams’ Tanya is still struggling with her role as pimp and, in a subplot that would make a far more entertaining A-story than anything we’re given, she seeks out advice from a more traditional local pimp, played by Lennie James. Many of Tanya’s problems stem from the enhanced profile for Rebecca Creskoff’s Lenore, who’s becoming a sexier version of Sue Sylvester, a character who gives the writers liberty to say or do anything. Also becoming more prominent is Anne Heche’s Jessica, who’s slowly beginning to realize how totally she’s been defined by ex-husband Ray and current husband Ronnie (Eddie Jemison, also getting more to do). We’re even getting more time for Ray and Jessica’s oddball kids, Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) and Damon (Charlie Saxton), who finally get around to raising the very real question of what sort of genetic joke created them from the combined DNA of Anne Heche and Thomas Jane.
I’m not exactly sure if the writers fear that they’ve hit up against the brick wall of Thomas Jane’s limited range, but in pushing him back into more of a traditional ensemble, they’re also reevaluating the overall theme of the show. It appears that they’re still using the same opening credit sequence with Jane walking through Detroit stripping off all of his clothing, all of his decency, all of his modesty and becoming Modern Man laid bare. The show started off asking, “If you take everything away from this man, everything but… well… his penis, how can he define himself in the world? How can he put a roof over his head? How can he provide for his children?”
I don’t think that’s the question that’s being asked anymore. Too often in the first four episodes, Ray is just being used as a life-sized sex toy, being baffled by women and their individualized fetishes, and when that’s all he’s there for, “Hung” devolves into a gloomier, recession-impacted version of “Californication.” In these sexual encounters, the women all experience exaggerated pleasure, while Jane never varies a facial expression that I would say is akin to a gigolo going down on a particularly sour lemon. There’s a lot of sex being had in “Hung,” but it’s almost never sexy. Placing a show that’s too dour to be exploitative after “True Blood” is almost a bad joke.
It’s also a bad joke to watch the “Entourage” characters whining about their lives in the fast lane and then cutting to Ray Drecker, his social awkward children, his social awkward pimp and his wrecked house with the honey in the walls. “Hung” always gives the impression that it *could* have substance if it wanted to, which makes it more disappointing when it settles for glibness, as if inspired by proximity to “Entourage.”
In its first season, “Hung” sometimes seemed to be running long and episodes passed the 30-minute mark a couple times. So far in Season Two, “Hung” is turning in episodes that run under 25 minutes, which look epic compared to “Entourage,” which sometimes can’t even be bothered to get past 20 minutes. Unlike “Entourage,” there are things in “Hung” that make me laugh, particularly Adams and Creskoff. There are clever lines of dialogue and, at its very best, “Hung” uncorks the occasional thematic observation that looks at life in 2010 with a clearer gaze than the superficialities of “Entourage.”
Check out Sepinwall’s more complete look at the second season of “Hung.”
And now, since it’s nearly 2 in the morning and I probably wish I was writing about “Toy Story 3” anyway… That’s it for this post.
“Hung” and “Entourage” return to HBO in the 10 p.m. hour on Sunday, June 27.