Last summer, I started to feel like that guy who doesn’t understand why his friends keep complaining about his new girlfriend.
The girlfriend in question was “Hung,” the HBO dramedy about a well-endowed Detroit high school coach (Thomas Jane) who, desperate for cash, decides to try his hand at male prostitution. When I wrote positive reviews of it, friends, readers and even fellow critics were incredulous: “Really? You like that show?” Soon, it became a default insult for any fan of a show I had just criticized: “Yeah, like I take that seriously from the guy who keeps writing about ‘Hung.'” An interview subject actually derailed our conversation for a good 5 minutes so he could try to figure out what it was I was seeing that he wasn’t.
And how do I feel about “Hung” as its second season debuts Sunday at 10? Well, I feel a little like that guy who finally dumped the objectionable girlfriend and has joined his friends in asking, “What on Earth was I thinking?”
I started the first of four episodes HBO sent out for review excited to be back in the world of aspiring gigolo Ray Drecker and his unlikely, ineffectual pimp Tanya (Jane Adams). By the time I got to the fourth, it was a struggle to keep going.
It’s not that the new episodes are appreciably worse, or even different, from the 10 that aired a summer ago. I’m certainly familiar with shows I like in year one just falling off a cliff in year two. No, “Hung” season two is doing roughly the same things as season one, and about as well – and that’s a big problem.
In season one, I recognized many of the complaints others had about the show: It moved very slowly. Its subject matter and atmosphere were incredibly bleak. It was an alleged comedy where you sometimes needed an electron microscope to find anything that resembled a joke. Etc. But I went with it, in part because Thomas Jane was so strong and so likable as Ray, a former golden boy whose life didn’t turn out anything like how he thought it would, in part because the idea of Jane Adams as a pimp was inherently funny to me, but also in part because the show seemed to be going somewhere. Yes, Ray’s escort career advanced at a snail’s pace, but there was advancement. We saw Tanya figure out how to get clients – with some help from sociopathic frenemy Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff) – and we saw Ray learn to rely on more than his anatomical gifts to please them.
I had seen this kind of slow build only recently on “Breaking Bad” (also about an emasculated middle-aged man who turns to crime during a time of financial peril), and there my faith was rewarded with the show becoming the best drama on television. “Hung,” on the other hand, progressed a little, then plateaued, and seemed content to repeat the same stories and themes – that Ray can’t quite recreate the life he thought he had, that Tanya is life’s punching bag, that Ray’s ex-wife Jess (Anne Heche) is a neurotic mess – over and over with little variation.
And because so little has changed, I’m having a much harder time enjoying elements that worked for me in the first season. I used to laugh at Tanya’s bad luck and utter lack of assertiveness, or at Lenore’s unapologetic awfulness; now both make me uncomfortable and eager to watch something else. Tanya does link up with a more traditional pimp (played by ubiquitous TV guest star Lennie James) who becomes her amused mentor, and that leads to the one laugh-out-loud moment in the first four episodes, as Tanya follows his advice to fire “mind bullets” at Lenore, but mostly she’s as meek and foiled by the universe as ever.
One laugh over two combined hours of alleged comedy is not a good ratio, particularly on a show with such a depressed setting and characters. (Lenore’s horrible, but she’s the only one enjoying anything at all.) The tone gets so dour that my interest wasn’t even perked up by the introduction of an underdog sports subplot – the sort of thing that’s ordinarily my critical Kryptonite – about Ray hoping to lead the high school baseball team to a championship in spite of a slashed budget and impending layoffs. With the way “Hung” operates, I figure, the team will either fall short, or their victory will be presented in a way that sucks all the fun out of it.
In the fourth episode, Jess’s dermatologist husband Ronnie (Eddie Jemison), fed up with feeling like a consolation prize after Jess left Ray, rants, “This is not what I signed up for! This is not the life of my dreams!”
“Hung” is, ultimately, not the show I thought I was signing up to watch, so I’m out, I think.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org