HBO's Penis Envy

In "Impossible to Tell," former poet laureate Robert Pinsky refers to "the rude, full-scale joke, impossible to tell in writing." Hung, a new HBO dramedy, is that kind of rude, full-scale joke. It stars Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a high-school basketball coach with the luck of Job: his wife leaves him for a smug dermatologist. (Anne Heche plays said wife as such a brittle, overbearing person that it seems Ray caught a break, but in voice-over, he tells us this is a bad thing.) The lakefront home he grew up in burns down, and as he has no insurance, he ends up living in a tent on the lawn. Penniless and powerless, he colludes with Tanya (the invaluable Jane Adams), a woman he meets in a class on how to get rich by marketing yourself, to market the only thing he has left: his gigantic penis. Don't feel bad if you didn't anticipate this based on the title. It could have been about an art gallery.

Hung is born of the simplest kind of substitution humor, in which a familiar situation has an unfamiliar variable introduced to it. A woman who finds herself in dire straits, forced to sell her body, isn't terribly funny. Neither are gay hustlers, who are usually tragic characters too. Swap in a rakish, middle-aged straight man and comic high jinks ensue. After all, a straight hustler is doing what we, societally, would expect a straight man to be doing anyway.

He's having indiscriminate sex with women, and he's using money goggles instead of beer goggles to get the job done. And truthfully, men do seem preoccupied with the notion of being paid for sex, if Google is any indication. A search for how to become a male porn star yields nearly 1.5 million hits. Meanwhile, there are a paltry 200,000 hits for how to become a beer taster, a job just as enviable but much more paunch-friendly.

This sex-starved stereotype of straight men is reinforced in the world of Hung in which prostitution truly is a victimless crime. The dramatic tension doesn't come from Ray's inner turmoil about what he's doing. Instead, the show uses prostitution to explore the same theme other racy cable series explore with murder (Dexter) and drugs (Breaking Bad, Weeds)—the care and feeding of a double life. When Showtime debuted its series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, some critics complained that Hannah (Billie Piper), driven to her profession by choice rather than circumstance, was too glossy and charmed for a prostitute. Ray's situation is the opposite—he's stumbling clumsily into the world's oldest profession—which is what makes Hung work, when it does work.

Based on the first four episodes, the rude, full-scale joke on display in Hung doesn't seem much easier to execute onscreen than it does in writing. For one, our collective aversion to male frontal nudity means the show has to be coy about Ray's "gift." Regardless of our actual interest in it, Ray's penis becomes like Charlie, the disembodied voice of Charlie's Angels: the longer it's concealed, the more we'll wonder what the fuss is all about. Hung boasts an intriguing premise for a series, but so far it's burnt around the edges and raw in the center, neither as funny nor as serious as it should be. Who knows, though? It could be a grower.

HBO's Penis Envy | Culture