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The confused semiotics of gender in HBO’s ‘Hung’

BroadcastinatingThere’s something tawdry about HBO’s male prostitution comedy, but it has nothing to do with whoring … at least not in the way you might think. Now in its second season, “Hung” follows steel-jawed gym teacher Ray Drecker as he squeezes in a side gig of hawking his naughty bits to really desperate housewives between baseball games. His pimp, an ex-poet named Tanya, is an endearing neurotic who arranges Ray’s liaisons and takes a percentage on the back end (no pun there, I swear!). The premise is novel enough, but the show’s real problem is that it doesn’t actually offer much in the way of psychological penetration of its protagonist (OK, that one was intentional) to sustain viewer interest once the initial shock value has worn off.

Courtesy of HBO

If we take a moment to peel back the surface novelty of male heterosexual prostitution, shouldn’t we have to contend with something darker and more disturbing? The crass exploitation and systematic degradation of our hero is seldom played for anything more than a punchline. To the women in the show, he’s both a horny bull and cash cow, and not much more. But can that be all? It would be impossible to ignore the tragedy of Ray’s situation if Ray were Ramona, wouldn’t it? One can hope, of course, that the show is making an oblique commentary about the social construction of gender, or the commodification of sex, or the shifting power dynamics between men and women — but then again this is the network that brought us “Entourage.”

Specifically, we don’t know how Ray feels about being a “ho.” He doesn’t seem degraded or dispirited, but doesn’t really seem to enjoy his work either. That lack of insight is particularly egregious considering how freely his monotone voice-over opines about things like baseball practice and bowling with his ex-wife. In fact, we might have a better show on our hands if the voice-over were coming from Jane Adams’ troubled pimp Tanya. After all, she’s the tortured poet, not a one-dimensional walking phallus: We care what she has to say, and, consequently, she ends up stealing most of their scenes. As long as Ray is doing the talking, the relationships on “Hung” remain transactional and, therefore, unsatisfying.

“Hung” can be a lot of fun, but for a show about prostitution, it’s a very antiseptic affair.

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