How Hung Is He?

Caryn James takes on Hung, HBO's saucy new comedy about an exceptionally well-endowed man.

We never see the humongous dick that gives HBO’s wry new comedy series Hung its title. But why would we, when this show about a financially strapped high-school coach who becomes a prostitute is—like prostitution itself—more about money than sex? In this upscale comedy about downward mobility, our whore and hero is Ray (Thomas Jane), who is not only an underpaid basketball coach, but underpaid in Detroit, a city in the avant-garde of the national economic slump. Ray’s bitter wife (Anne Heche) has left him for a dermatologist, and his two teenaged kids live with him—that is, until the house burns down and he ends up sleeping in a tent. How low can a former high-school jock go? Apparently low enough to sell the only talent he has left: his remarkable penis.

How low can a former high-school jock go? Apparently low enough to sell the only talent he has left: his remarkable penis.

This sounds a like a premise for the tackiest show around, but Hung (premiering tonight) lives up to its super-smart, droll pedigree. It was created by Dmitry Lipkin (who also created the underappreciated The Riches) and Colette Burson, and the pilot was directed by Alexander Payne ( Sideways, Election). The Riches, with Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver as con artists living in a McMansion, was about reaching the high end of the American Dream. Hung deals with the now-timelier idea of trying to keep your head above water in a killer economy while wondering how the hell you became such a loser.

Strangely, the results are funny and never depressing. Maybe the series seems cheerful because even the most 401K-poor viewers can say, “At least I’m not a hooker.” (And: “At least I can still pay for HBO.”) But the show also feels breezy because beneath its blunt language and dry wit (and they make all the difference), Hung is about everyday decent people, and about as wholesome as Pretty Woman.

There’s definitely sex and nudity, even if we don’t see the title player; almost seeing Ray’s penis, masked by sheets and cautious camera angles, becomes a self-consciously playful tease. But the show is really driven by the Tracy-and-Hepburnish relationship between Ray and his unlikely pimp, Tanya (Jane Adams, who practically steals the series). Tanya is a frizzy-haired poet who loathes her day job temping for a law firm, and her exit strategy is to market Ray. She’s also the person who accidentally gave him the idea for a second career by yelling “You’re so big” during their quick fling, before she started berating him about his insensitivity to women’s feelings. (Her frequent lectures about how to treat women are the most strained aspects of the writing.)

Because Ray and Tanya are played by two of the least glam, most ordinary-looking actors around, it seems comically absurd for them to choose the sex trade as their bright idea. And while we can feel the sexual chemistry come through their now-Platonic partnership, they hardly notice anymore because they’re too busy squabbling. Tanya calls Ray a misogynist and he screams back, mocking her advertising slogan, “‘Happiness consultant’? Viral marketing? You are the worst pimp in the world!”

This coach-whore and poet-pimp are part of the mainstreaming of porn and prostitution as themes, in films that never mimic their subject. Steven Soderbergh’s recent, arty The Girlfriend Experience, with real-life porn star Sasha Grey playing an expensive escort, was so thoroughly about money that it had no sex scenes at all. Hung is not the first comedy to see sex as a fallback career, either. Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, with Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as penniless best friends who hope to earn the rent money with an amateur sex film, is a romantic comedy that spoofs the very idea of porn. ( Zack and Miri tanked at the box office last year but its mock-porn films-within-the-film are genuinely funny, worth catching on DVD.) And nothing is more mainstream than those sleazy-funny late-night commercials for male-enhancement products, so off the FDA’s radar they don’t even come with side-effect warnings.

None of these recent movies has become a blockbuster, or a cult favorite like 1997’s Boogie Nights, with Mark Wahlberg and his prosthetic penis playing porn actor Dirk Diggler. But the world is changing. In olden days, women insisted that size didn’t matter, while sharing the unspoken sisterly agreement: That’s our story, we’re sticking to it. The shrewd, amusing Hung may signal changes way beyond the economy.

Hung premieres tonight—Sunday, June 28—at 10 p.m. on HBO.

Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew .