HBO's "Hung" is the latest in their attempts to recapture the glory of past years' pay cable ratings bonanzas.
Initially, exclusive programming on pay cable networks was an enticement to subscribers aside from the same old reruns of movies shown a thousand times. Later on, the made-for-pay-cable series was a jewel in the network's crown, award bait, and people lined up to catch the episodes as soon as they aired. HBO had been the leader in this area for most of pay cable history, churning out early series like "Not Necessarily The News", "1st & Ten", and, more recently, powerhouses like "The Sopranos", "Six Feet Under", and "Sex And The City". Aside from the actual quality or merit of these particular shows, they paved the way for the concept of non-network programming, edgy television, and award-winning television.
HBO has hit on harder times. The days of "The Soparanos" are gone. All their once-powerful, award-winning shows have ended. Showtime, after many false, sputtering starts has not only managed to develop a comparable level of programming but have totally surpassed HBO with a wave of fan favorites like "Dead Like Me", "Dexter", "Weeds", "The L Word" and a variety of new material that seems to make HBO's programming feel like a cheap, shallow imitation in comparison.
In many ways, it is this particular situation that works to the detriment of a show like "Hung", as the avid viewer's first reaction is that the new series has the feel of a darker, less-humorous, hour-long "Californication". This comparison might be apt in some capacity, but is a bit unfair to Thomas Jane's fledgling series, paired up with the overtly-sexual "True Blood".
Though some comparisons could be made between the elements and tones of the two shows, there are a variety of differences between "Californication" and "Hung" that could prove to be interesting in the future. Where David Duchovny portrayed a man giving in endlessly to his vices when he should know better, leading the audience to frustration that the character they are expected to relate to is too god-damned stupid to just move on to where we all know he's going. While it did prove amusing to some extent and offered humorous situations for Hank Moody to flounder in, "Californication" fell into a trap of providing the audience with a smart, likable lead that should know better and is regressing out of personal flaws and obstinance. His only conflict was internal: a man against his own subconscious desire to ruin his life through immature acts.
"Hung" at least provides a more compelling starting point for our ostensible hero. Ray Drecker, played by the afore-mentioned Thomas Jane, is a single dad to a set of twins, divorced, a teacher and a coach. After being left by his former beauty queen wife, Ray moves back into his childhood home with his twins and continues his bland life as father, history teacher, and coach until a house fire leaves him alone, camping in his back yard, trying to scrounge enough to rebuild his ruined home. Realizing that he's a nobody, a complete loser who's never accomplished anything, he desperately looks for a get-rich quick scheme to return his life to normal and provide a home for his ever-more-distant children. The particular get-rich-quick scheme that Ray is led to is whoring himself out as a gigolo.
Now, on one hand you have a promising talent that wastes his gifts and acts like a retarded child, on the other you have a nobody that is trying to make anything of his life to better his family situation and give some meaning to a wasted existence. The latter is, ultimately, a deeper and more sustainable story, but whether it will come to fruition at all remains to be seen. The first episode was interesting and amusing in a slightly perverse way, but gives little indication as to where the season will lead.
One of the more interesting points is the total avoidance of attractive characters. Typically, any TV show will feature inordinately attractive individuals in as many main roles as possible, as it's TV... Hot people are nice to look at. But this show actively avoids the beautiful people. Ray's twins are chunky nerds, his former prom queen ex-wife is average-looking, and most other people in the cast are anywhere between weathered and somewhat ugly. The show does take place in Detroit, but everyone is surprisingly plain, which could also prove to be an interesting element of the show.
In the coming weeks, "Hung" will either prove to be an interesting addition to HBO's line-up or will be another weak attempt to match Showtime's lead.