Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hung Out to Dry

HBO’s new series, Hung, is compelling, controversial and bringing in high ratings for the network. For those of who don’t know, the plot centers on “Ray,” a high school history teacher and basketball coach. When we meet Ray, he is at rock bottom. Once the star athlete, Ray lost a promising future in major league baseball to a tragic career-ending injury. His beautiful wife left him for the class nerd, now a successful dentist, and in the pilot episode, we watch his house burn down in a tragic accident. He foolishly let the insurance lapse and has no money for the repairs so he moves into a small camping tent in his backyard. His kids move in with their mother, and he’s left desolate, broken and alone. Like many down on their luck in this rotten economy, Ray enrolls in a “get rich quick” course and makes a startling decision – he will become a male prostitute.

I first watched the program to examine how gender roles and gender traditions were portrayed. Plots centering on women who sell their bodies can widely be seen in film and television, but a man who sells himself is new terrain. The most fundamental theme about gender relations one can notice in Hung is that men and women don’t get along. Relationships are problematic, and no one on the show is in a loving, healthy relationship. In fact, perhaps the most noticeable thing about Hung is that no one gets along with anyone, no one is happy.

Class distinctions are apparent, but there appears to be not much difference there either. Characters who have money are unhappy and are in strained relationships while those with lower socioeconomic status are equally dissatisfied. In contemporary American society, power comes with wealth, but in the world of Hung, the rich are portrayed as equally powerless as the poor. The rich women who are Ray’s clients are powerless to change their lives. Although the rich lawyer Ray lives next to is able to persuade law enforcement to continually impose fines on Ray for living in a tent, he is powerless to stop Ray’s deviant behavior or to force him off of his land. In one episode, we learn that he also lacks the power to sexually satisfy his own wife. Even Ray’s ex-wife is having problems in her marriage, and we learn that her husband lost almost a million dollars in investments due to the recession.

Hung provides a realistic representation of suburban dissatisfaction and, like the current economy, teaches us that striving to get everything leaves one with nothing. The instructor of the financial course Ray takes is in fact a fraud who rents a Jaguar to portray himself as successful to his students. This illustrates another theme of the show – things are not what they seem. Ray’s ex and her husband seem to be wealthy but are not. Marriages seem to be healthy and happy but are not. And Ray seems to be the average high school teacher, but is actually a male prostitute.

The only real, honest relationship on the show is between Ray and his pimp, Tanya. Tanya is an unsuccessful poet with writer’s block who spends her days mindlessly checking legal documents for errors and her nights marketing Ray as a “happiness consultant.” A self-proclaimed feminist, Tanya believes that the service Ray offers is one that can give women the happiness they long for but cannot find in their marriages or other relationships. So far, Ray’s clients have consisted of lonely women seeking companionship, wanting to be appreciated for who they are and who are sexually liberated but cannot find fulfillment.

Ray and Tanya are both desperate and lonely. They’ve each been disappointed by their lives, but have great hope and ambition. Their friendship is open, vulnerable and each depends on the other in very real ways. In a recent episode, Ray told Tanya that she was his only friend, and he was right. Though neither is happy, they seem to find solace in one another’s company and support.

I am reminded of a quote by Lester Bangs in Almost Famous: “The only real currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” As our real world looms closer to bankruptcy every day, perhaps shared moments of desperation provide the only opportunity for true human connection.


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