There was something novel about the first generation of successful pay cable dramas, “The Sopranos,” and “Six Feet Under,” which were character driven shows about the family dynamics of those involved in unusual professions. The second generation — “Entourage,” “Weeds,” “Dexter,” and “Big Love” — started strong, but with the exception of “Big Love,” their gimmicks have begun to wear out their welcome. The second generation has taught us that gimmicks can only get you so far — the characters have to carry a show past its first year. Indeed, after the novelty wore off, the characters in “Entourage” revealed themselves as the douchezillas we should’ve recognized in the beginning; the characters in “Weeds” have completely lost touch with the people they were in the first couple of seasons; and “Dexter” has lost its momentum because it refuses to stray away from its gimmick, and there’s only so much you can do with a serial killer investigating his own murders before it gets repetitive.
I’m starting to feel like the third generation of pay-cable dramas — “Nurse Jackie,” (I was out in three episodes), “The United States of Tara,” (I listlessly watched the first season) and “True Blood” (I struggled up through the second-season premiere and quit) are beginning to feel like some of the same shows you’d find on network TV, only with more sex and blood. They’re gimmick shows — a pill-popping nurse; a multiple-personality mom; and Crash with vampires, but I don’t really feel like the characters are that compelling beyond their conceits (and for my money, not even the “True Blood’s” conceit merits much value).
HBO’s latest, “Hung,” does seem, on its face, like another gimmick show — ordinary high-school teacher with a huge dick — but at least based on the pilot, the characters are somewhat compelling, enough at least to keep me interested after the novelty of the premise has been exhausted. Thomas Jane — failed star of the silver screen (The Punisher, The Mist), whose best work (Stander) has barely been seen — plays Ray Drecker, a loserish, sad-sack high-school teacher heading toward mid-life crisis. All of his best years are behind him — he was once a promising young baseball prospect — and he is now stuck coaching a high-school basketball team in the midst of a couple of losing seasons. To add to his misery, his wife (Anne Heche) left him for a dorky proctologist, and though his chubby twin children initially chose to stay with him, he lost them as well when his house caught on fire. And wouldn’t you know it, his insurance policy had lapsed.
So, Ray — living in a tent outside the charred shell of his home — decides to take a get-rich course, which instructs its students to market their best “tool.” Ray’s best tool? “You were beautiful and talented and athletic and smart and popular and hung,” his wife bemoans.”Now you’re just hung.” His dick is all he has, a realization he comes to after bedding an effusive poetry writer with a hair-trigger clit reflex (Jane Adams). So, what’s an average guy pushing 40 with a monster cock and no skills to do? Become a man whore, of course. And why not recruit the poet — who has a way with words — to be your pimp?
That’s the premise behind “Hung,” and it has plenty of possibilities, but mostly it’s Thomas Jane’s low-key turn as a dumb guy trying to take advantage of his huge box of junk that’s the show’s main draw. “Hung,” in fact, is less interested in its conceit than it is with what drove Ray to prostitution, the emotional baggage, and the questions of morality that accompany the profession, which makes it a far more interesting show than one about a guy with a tripod plowing his way through the lonely and horny women of Detroit. Moreover, Jane Adams sensitive feminist poet brings some complexity to the gimmick, aiming to wrap the prostitution angle around the concept of self-empowerment, a less controversial notion when you’re dealing with a male prostitute. Anne Heche, who does crazy bitch as well as anyone, is well cast as a mother trying to connect with her gothy, detached and sullen children, which appears to be a subplot nearly as compelling as the main one, if only because these teenagers aren’t like any others we’ve seen on television before. They’re not secretly attractive underneath a pair of glasses and a bad haircut — they genuinely look the part of socially ostracized high schoolers.
It’s not an amazing show by any means, but so far at least, it’s a good one. And more importantly, if the characters are as well drawn in the rest of the series as they are in the opening episodes, it has the potential to be interesting for more than a season or two. That is, unless “Hung” goes the “Weeds” route, and Ray ends up running a male prostitution ring, turning his children into whores, and impregnating the chief of police.