The Renaissance Center, a towering phallic symbol! The Joe Louis fist, suddenly a massive black dildo! And the Dodge Fountain at Hart Plaza? Oh, one can only imagine what wild sexual images that might suggest! Funny how your city's landmarks take on an entirely different symbolism when an HBO series called Hung slaps its name alongside them.
Hung, at 10 p.m. Sundays, is the rising joint, TV's hot show of the moment, and it draws some of its inspiration and many of its locations from filming in part around metro Detroit. While officials at Clarkston Junior High — which doubles for fictional West Lakefield High School, workplace of the show's central figure, woebegone head basketball coach Ray Drecker — may have felt a bit duped by participating in a series about a guy who tries to reverse his life's fortunes by marketing his giant schlong, national exposure and experience is never an entirely bad thing.
It's certainly reaffirming to see local treasures like the RenCen, fist, fountain, Fox Theatre, Lafayette Coney Island and the front of the DeLido motel on Woodward Avenue displayed in full glory each week in Hung's opening credits. One pivotal scene in a recent episode, shot on a sunny day along our new Riverwalk, made the Detroit River look like the most glorious promenade this side of the Seine. The state's generous and wonderful film tax credits played a role in Hung settling here, of course, but there were other factors at play.
The show's creators wanted Drecker to live on or near water. They considered Chicago as a locale but we beat them out, although you may not fully appreciate the reasons why.
"We wanted Ray to be near a major metropolitan area and on a lake, and we looked around Chicago, but Illinois treats lakes very differently," says executive producer Colette Burson, who created, produces and writes the show with her husband, Dmitry Lipkin. "There's concrete around them and little grassy hills, and the houses are all very neat. Whereas in Michigan, everything around the Detroit area, I mean, it's wild! The houses go right on the water, the docks go right out to the water. And then we wanted that economic disparity of the shack next to the big house, and when we started looking we realized that around Detroit was where we were going to find this."
Hear that? Some of the people who normally fly over us think we're wild and undeveloped. What were they expecting, Fort Pontchartrain?
That's not all. As the story hangs, Ray, played believably by the shabbily handsome Thomas Jane (no stranger to Detroit after playing Mickey Mantle at Tiger Stadium in the HBO movie 61*), is hanging on by a thread. Recently divorced, wallowing in debt, he has the incredibly crappy misfortune to let his insurance lapse just before he accidentally burns down his ramshackle lakeside house (an actual shanty producers found next door to a stately mansion on a stretch of Middle Straits Lake in West Bloomfield).
He's living in a tent on his property. Even his basketball team is on a losing streak. His ex-beauty queen ex-wife, Jessica (the mercurial Anne Heche, of all people), who left Ray for a wealthy dermatologist and assumed custody of their two sulky teenagers, expresses his plight most succinctly. "God, you were magical in high school!" she laments. "You were a king! You were beautiful and athletic and talented and smart and popular, and hung. Now you're just hung."
Desperate enough to attend one of those cheesy get-rich seminars in a hotel ballroom, Ray runs into former conquest Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams — Miles Crane's second wife, Mel, on Frasier — who's doing Emmy-quality work here), a drifty temp proofreader and part-time poet, who challenges him to use his only remaining asset, his monstrous love log, as a means to an end. He scans the back pages of the "Detroit Examiner" (they couldn't mean our beloved Metro Times, could they?) for research, but quickly realizes he can't pull it out by himself. He returns to Tanya for advice, and they form Detroit's unlikeliest male prostitute-pimp partnership.
Even Ray's name — "Dreck"-er, get it? — conveys bottom-of-the-barrel, state of ruin, life in shambles. What better place to set the story than in Detroit? A once-great life falling apart in a once-great city falling apart? "There is that," Lipkin acknowledges. "I mean, Detroit did sort of represent for us the great American dream that's now sort of fallen on hard times." Marvelous. Our standing as the nation's metaphor for misery is perpetuated. Detroit = despair.
Fortunately, however, despite all that Hung is a quality presentation, well-cast, beautifully shot, cleverly written. Double entendre runs thick in this show, as you might expect — once Drecker's motives are established, even a simple breakfast-meeting offer like "You sure you don't want some of my sausage?" raises a smirk — and Ray's bumbling attempts as a reluctant first-time gigolo occasionally rise to the level of classic screwball comedy, although the howl-out-loud quality of the humor may be gender-specific: One suspects men are far more likely to identify with Ray's condition than women.
What's more, the sheer hopelessness of Drecker's situation and Tanya's existence may imply a deeper theme in Hung, about the state of masculinity and the human condition in the 21st century, but that may be giving the show too much credit. What is obvious is that Ray's first business liaison is at the opulent Motor City Casino Hotel. When Tanya is asked on a date, they go to Greektown. For a crumbling American dream, Detroit shows very well on network TV. We're a pretty place, everything considered.
In fact, about the only thing you don't see on Hung, with its coarse language and sporadic nudity, that you expect to see is Ray's … uh … well, the show's namesake. "We're not saying we'll never show it," Burson muses, "but we haven't shown it thus far because it seems like it's in the mind for each woman who experiences it, it's different.
"People ask us, 'How many dick jokes are flying in your writers' room?' and it's really amusing to us because it doesn't fly so much in the writers' room," she says. "We're trying to figure out what makes him tick. We aren't really interested in the gag of it."
So to speak.Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org