The cancelled HBO show bucked the trend of portraying men as bumbling, incompetent losers
HBO has announced that it is cancelling the comedy Hung after three seasons. This should not come as a surprise. Despite Hung's somewhat edgy premise—a well-endowed high school teacher from Detroit turns to prostitution to help make ends meet—the show's uneven comedic tone made it difficult to discern what exactly its creators were aiming for: Was Hung a farce, a dramedy, or something in between?
But what always stood out to me about Hung was how seriously the show took its male characters and the way its narrative suggested men can actually be competent, functioning members of society. This made an anomaly in the world of television comedy, a world that is chock full male characters whose obvious defects are often exaggerated and function as punch lines.
As The Atlantic has argued, there is mounting evidence to suggest that men have seen better days, that our post-industrial economy we live seems, for myriad reasons, better suited to females. Men no longer constitute a majority of the workforce. They no longer make as much money in terms of real median income or graduate from institutions of higher learning at the same rate as their forefathers. And partially as a result, some women are starting to question the institution of marriage because committing to a man is presenting less and less of a financial and social upside.
The ever- prescient purveyors of pop culture seem to have caught on to this phenomenon and have adjusted the way television shows and films, particularly comedies, portray men. The 2011 fall television lineup garnered significant coverage for the fact that a number of new sitcoms—New Girl, 2 Broke Girls—revolve around female leads, while other shows like Last Man Standing suggest that a male-dominated society is a thing of the past.
If journalists like Hanna Rosin and Kate Bolick are correct, and we truly are witnessing the end of men and of male-female relationships as we have long known and understood them, the fact that it is happening against a backdrop of TV narratives in which men are a bunch of slobbering bozos seems like a dash of salt in an open wound.
Hung bucked this trend by portraying its male characters in a sometimes stunningly positive manner. Since the show's debut in 2009, its creators went out of their way to portray the leading character and a particular part of his anatomy as a Godsend to women. The world of Hung was not one, to quote the title of Maureen Dowd's 2005 book, that raises the question "Are men necessary?" It was a phallocentric show that suggested men can be the best answer to a woman's problems.
Every season of Hung explored different themes, but the one theme that remained constant throughout the show's run was the idea that females gain incredible pleasure from the company of a worthy man. Almost all of show's female characters at one time or another have sex and/or spend time with Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), the aforementioned high school teacher turned male prostitute, and the show suggested that all of those characters are better off for their interactions with him. The primary reason female characters are attracted to Drecker is his sexual prowess, but the show also demonstrated that the women enjoy the non-sexual aspects of Drecker's company.
Consider the relationship Ray establishes with a pregnant woman named Claire (Kathryn Hahn) in season two. Sex s the crux of their relationship, but Claire also enjoys just spending time with Ray around her spacious house, which is filmed in a way to emphasize its emptiness. Abandoned by her husband, Claire clearly craves someone with whom she can have a relationship, and Ray is that person. The pair's casual conversations and friendly interactions are a boon to her and part of the reason she continues to hire him.
Throughout the show, Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams), who acts as Ray's pimp and business partner, pushes Ray to make every client relationship a well-rounded experience rather than a one-dimensional sexual relationship. Tanya is portrayed as the show's most progressive character, yet she firmly believes that in order for women to be satisfied they need more than sex. She also believes that a man is the best person to provide this type of non-sexual satisfaction.
Whether or not this depiction is accurate or fair is up for debate, but the show's sometimes obvious endorsement of the idea that a good man can be woman's savior always kept it intriguing. Considering the material, it would have been easy for Hung's creators to allow Ray's character to devolve into a joke. The show could have derived its humor at the expense of his aging-ex-athlete-who-seems-like-a-fish-out-of-water-in-the-post-recession-landscape character type, and Hung would not have been the first sitcom to use its male lead as the butt of its jokes (think Michael Scott in The Office, Phil Dunphy in Modern Family, and Homer Simpson in The Simpsons).
Hung , however, consistently took the opposite approach. Instead of becoming a bad stereotype, Ray functioned as the show's moral center, and he often came across as the only well-rounded character. After Ray's wife Jessica (Anne Heche) leaves him for a wealthy dermatologist with whom she seems to share nothing in common, the couple's two children opt to live with their father because he treats them with more love and respect than Jessica does. Jessica is portrayed, often unfairly, as a materialistic shrew that cannot connect with her overweight, socially alienated children. Contrast that with Ray, who, despite having little in common with his children in terms of interests or even physical appearance, always goes out of his way to make sure they have what they need to be happy and rarely judges them or the choices they make.
Tanya, on the other hand, is depicted as less morally scrupulous than Ray. She screws over a rich client in one of season two's more interesting subplots, and only tries to make amends for her transgression after Ray confronts her. At every plot turn during the show's three-year life span, Ray is depicted as a stand-up guy, the one character who is sometimes willing to prioritize other people's interests over his own. For instance, when the high school where he teaches cannot buy new uniforms for the baseball team, Ray uses money from his own pocket to cover the cost.
The idea of a morally grounded male prostitute was somewhat offbeat, but what was even more interesting about Hung was that Ray is not the only male character upon whom female characters consistently rely. Whenever a woman on the show needed help with a problem—whether it was a business problem or a personal problem—that woman turned to a man. In season two, Tanya seeks advice from a male pimp named Charlie (Lennie James), and their relationship eventually becomes romantic, bringing Tanya a great deal of happiness. Charlie ends up stealing money from Ray and ending his relationship with Tanya without warning. When Tanya confronts Charlie in what would turn out to be the series' second-to-last episode, he shows no remorse for his actions and suggests that Tanya was naïve for expecting more from a fellow pimp.
The Charlie-Tanya plot line reinforces a traditional notion that is rarely portrayed in present-day pop culture: Women tend to need men and men tend to be more emotionally detached when it comes to personal relationships. While that romance concluded in an abrupt and unexpected way, it emphasized the theme that that women need men—so much, in fact, that they're occasionally blind to obvious character flaws that could end up hurting them.
Another example of a female character who seeks solace from a man occurred in season two, when an innocent mix-up forces Ray to send his friend and fellow teacher Mike (Gregg Henry) on a date with a new client named Frances (Roxanne Hart), a wealthy widow who, despite her financial stability, is somewhat unfulfilled. In many ways Mike is the opposite of Ray—unattractive, socially awkward, and somewhat goofy—but Frances enjoys his company so much, even without sex, that she continues to see him. The couple ends up getting engaged, and their marriage is shown in the second to last episode of season three.
This depiction of a wealthy woman gaining happiness from the company of a financially less successful man jumped into my mind after reading Kate Bolick's article "All the Single Ladies," from the November 2011 issue of The Atlantic. Bolick's piece makes a strong case that marriage is no longer necessary in today's society and that many women are choosing single-dom and are happier for that choice. More often than not, pop culture reinforces this notion—there are plenty of female television characters who are depicted as confident and not needing the company of a man to fulfill them, such as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, Nancy Botwin in Weeds, and Liz Lemon in 30 Rock. Hung stood in stark contrast to this notion. The female characters crave relationships with men: sexual relationships, business relationships, and emotional relationships.
Hung never overtly broached the question of whether or not prostitution is immoral. The show was a comedy and watching it forced the viewer to accept the actions of Ray, Tanya, and their clients and not to hold them in contempt. What made the show so compelling was that in its own strange little way, it seemed to be arguing that it's okay to take men seriously because women desire men and the things that men can provide. It was an outlier in a television landscape where more often than not men resemble Tim Allen's aging misanthrope in Last Man Standing or the three confused and immature young men that share an apartment with Zooey Deschanel's New Girl. Hung may never have been destined for a long run on television, but it played a unique role while it lasted.