Clearly the Obama administration needs to address the issue of teacher salaries and fast. On AMC's "Breaking Bad," Bryan Cranston is playing a science teacher making meth, and now we have Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a high school basketball coach turned male prostitute in HBO's "Hung."
Both are men of middle age who find themselves undone by fate -- Cranston's Walter White has cancer, Ray's wife has left him and he's lost his home to fire -- and a lack of ambition. Both are angry at a world that seems to have reneged on earlier promises so, with their personal landscapes scorched beyond recognition, they become, essentially, survivalists, reaching for whatever talents they have to create their own lawless, post-apocalyptic society. Recession-era Mad Maxes.
This is not to say that "Hung" is simply a sexed-up version of "Breaking Bad." Certainly there are similarities, but the same river runs through "Weeds": the belief that the old economic system is broken, that a decent living cannot be made through decency.
More important, each of the characters desire some sort of meaningful identity, which cookie-cutter, consumption-driven America seems intent on obliterating.
This is especially true of "Hung," which, despite its sophomoric title, attempts to be a surprisingly subtle study of modern adulthood in difficult economic times. (In case you don't get this, it's set in Detroit.) In this it occasionally succeeds, but at a cost to the sexual farce or frisson one might expect from such a setup. Regrettably, the word "flaccid" often comes to mind.
Ray is the quintessential former high school superstar, or at least as those who did not share in this distinction love to imagine him. Not too smart, he has never quite moved on from the arena in which he experienced his zenith -- high school. After his athletic career was cut short, Ray became a mediocre history teacher and a successful basketball coach. Which worked out OK until his high school sweetheart/wife Jessica (Anne Heche) realized this was as good as it was going to get and left him for another former school mate, the dweeb who turned into the multimillionaire dermatologist.
"You were beautiful and talented and athletic and smart and popular and hung," Jessica wails of her high school dream boy as she drives off. "Now you're just hung."
Which is, apparently, not enough. Although maybe it is. "Hung" is very clear on one point: No matter what you've heard, bigger is better. Meanwhile, Ray and his teenage kids, Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) and Damon (Charlie Saxton), move into his parents' old and rather dilapidated lakefront home, which promptly burns down. (The sequence in which this happens will, and should, send every viewer scuttling around their homes to check for sloppy extension cord use.) And of course, Ray has let the insurance lapse.
This is where we meet him, and his voice-over (is there a way we could tax voice-overs? Use the money to perhaps pay teachers better?), sleeping in a tent outside the burned out shell of his childhood home, surrounded by the McMansions that have sprouted along the lake like so many travertine toadstools. Desperate, he attends a get-rich-quick seminar where he meets Tanya (Jane Adams), a poet with whom he has had a one-night stand. After another similar encounter, in which he uses afterglow to find his pants and the door, Tanya weepily tells him that he's such an egomaniac, he should just "market his . . ." well, I can't write it here, but you get the idea.
Empires have been built on less, and soon Ray is attempting to become a male escort with about as much success as the pre-Ratso Joe Buck in "Midnight Cowboy." (Indeed, if creators Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson are feeling up to it, they should invite Jon Voight or Dustin Hoffman on board for cameos.) But Tanya seems to love Ray for more than his physical endowments and soon she is helping him establish his new "happiness consultant" business.
For a half-hour HBO show about male prostitution, "Hung" tends to keep its clothes on and move v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. Lipkin and Burson appear more interested in the pitted, shrunken but still heroically vital human spirit than naked butts and intercourse. Which is admirable, but if you're looking for the male version of, say, "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" or even the raciness of "Weeds," look elsewhere. Sex in early episodes of "Hung" is surprisingly non-graphic and certainly non-erotic.
The nakedness is more of an emotional sort. Heche is, as usual, tightly wound and slightly mad, though watching her attempt to connect with her children -- Damon is a goth, Darby is dating a loser and both are maestros of not-quite-sullen silence -- is a writhe-in-your-seat pleasure.
Adams easily steals the show, all bug-eyed, wild-haired and vaguely feminist, a woman so obsessive she has been a temp for years and doesn't see the irony in that. As a pimp, she is attempting to modernize the oldest profession in the world by making it more about self-empowerment than sex, which is hilarious to watch and not a bad business model when you think about it.
With his almost cartoonish good looks, Jane swings between anger and bewilderment in a mostly endearing way, managing to embody the isolation, fear and still sturdy denial many of us feel in these uncertain times. Despite some less-than-stellar story lines -- Ray's feud with his rich neighbor, his constant referral to how things have changed since his parents' day -- Ray comes across as a genuine Everyman. Who just happens to have a certain God-given talent that will allow him to survive.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)