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The anatomy of a dramedy

The first thing you should know about HBO’s new series “Hung,” which begins airing tonight, is that it’s not just a show about a guy with a big penis who decides to become a gigolo. No siree.

According to its wife-husband co-creators, Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin, “Hung” is about the fraying of the American dream and the battered resiliency of the middle class. It’s about the former golden boys and golden girls of high school being forced to navigate midlife’s tricky shoals. It’s about the lip-smacking ironies of extreme gender reversal, and how they can affect the dynamic between a couple.

And it’s about that eternal Freudian brain-teaser, ‘What do women want?’ (Hint: It’s not just roses and Godiva chocolates.)

Even so, Burson and Lipkin concede, for writers like themselves it’s intriguing to get inside the mind and skin of Ray Drecker, the aforementioned, hugely well-endowed main character in “Hung,” played by actor Thomas Jane. “It’s a really weird personality type, these guys with huge penises,” Burson reflected recently. “It’s like they won some lottery.”

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Alas, in Ray’s case, that’s about the only thing he’s won lately.

Growing up in Detroit, Ray was a popular jock and big man on campus who dated a beauty queen and once earned a pro baseball tryout. That was back during the height of the American Century.

Now Ray’s a fortysomething suburban high school basketball coach and divorced dad struggling to raise two sensitive Emo teens (Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Charlie Saxton) in the semi-charred remains of his parents’ old lakeside home. His ex-wife Jessica (Anne Heche), disillusioned with her former high school sweetheart and suffering from her own case of midlife blahs, has ditched Ray for a prosperous dermatologist.

But when Ray’s free-spirited sometime lover Tanya (Jane Adams) proposes that he follow a self-help guru’s advice and cash in on his biggest personal asset, the suggestion sticks. Ray reckons that he can earn some badly needed cash by helping women of a certain age and income fill a void in their hearts and beds.

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“Ray’s not in any more of a desperate situation than most men find themselves in their middle 40s,” said Thomas Jane, who recently attained the big 4-0 himself. “He’s looking around for a winning tool and he doesn’t realize it’s literally right in front of him.”

As an actor, Jane said, he can identify with Ray’s history of career ups and downs, exhilarating highs followed by steep reversals, or vice versa. A high school dropout who once earned a living busking on Santa Monica Boulevard, Jane was redeemed through acting. After scoring some early successes in such films as “Boogie Nights,” he said, “I went on to do crappy movies after that, kind of disappeared for a while.”

But he bounced back in 2004 starring in Jonathan Hensleigh’s “The Punisher” as an avenging father opposite John Travolta. “As an actor, me and Ray are similar in that regardless of how I feel on any particular day, I’ve still gotta go in there and fake it,” he joked.

Ray’s odyssey, Jane said, is “a man’s journey into the heart of female darkness. It’s a real journey into the female form. That for me is beautiful. I’m a lover of women, they fascinate and terrify me.”

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In this economy

Setting the series in Detroit turned out to be propitious, although mainly for unfortunate reasons. Ray’s hard-luck hometown has become ground zero of declining Rust Belt America, the symbol of a nation in economic mid-life crisis. “Everything’s falling apart. And it all starts right here in Detroit. The headwaters of a river of failure,” Ray’s voice intones over shots of abandoned auto plants and the old Tiger Stadium being ripped down, in the pilot episode directed by Alexander Payne (“Sideways”).

Today those images speak even more to the plight of southeastern Michigan, which has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, and the country at large than they did when Burson and Lipkin first scoped out the series.

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“As writers we are interested in class, we are interested in the economic factors influencing people,” said Lipkin, who as a pre-adolescent immigrated with his family from Russia to Baton Rouge, La.

“Once we started shooting in Detroit, the economics just started infusing everything,” Burson said. “Ray is like the middle class who’s being squeezed.”

As for the show’s titillating set-up, viewers may find their attention pulled well beyond Ray’s anatomical giftedness as they get drawn into the 10-episode series. Michael Lombardo, president of HBO programming, said he was “a little disconcerted” when he first heard about the show.

“And then I read the script,” he said. “I think what they [Burson and Lipkin] tapped into is what I’ll call a certain male middle-age malaise, particularly for men who feel they may have peaked in the first half of their life.”

Lombardo said that “Hung” fulfills HBO’s criteria of looking for shows that have a distinct point of view, work on multiple thematic and dramatic levels, and are “wildly entertaining.”

The cultural and psychological terrain that “Hung” traverses isn’t quite as outlandish or novel as its premise. Ray bears certain similarities of character and background to Harry Angstrom, the former star athlete-turned-car-salesman protagonist of John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels. The 1990s film (and later Broadway musical) “The Full Monty,” about unemployed workers who decide to form a male striptease act, also charts the uneasy intersection of socioeconomic insecurity and traditional male sexual identity under siege. Another current HBO series, “Eastbound & Down,” concerns a former big league relief pitcher whose obnoxious persona and slowing fastball ended his promising career, and who’s now hoping for a shot at redemption.

Heche said she thinks that “Hung” addresses serious, anxious questions that many Americans, men and women alike, are asking themselves as home prices tumble, jobs dwindle and the roles and habits that formerly defined their lives shift overnight or, in many cases, simply disappear.

“I think a lot of Americans are looking at their lives right now and saying, ‘What happened?’ ” she said. The show, she added, “does raise the question of how far would we go, when there seems to be no answer and no one is going to be doing it for us.”

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Like many of her friends in Hollywood, Heche said, in recent months she personally has felt the economic pinch precipitated by last year’s writers strike. “It was very scary. I was pregnant. And of course when you’re in it, you think it’s never going to end,” she said. “ ‘Hung’ has saved my butt.”

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Striking a chord

Adams, probably best known for her performance as the friend Carrie in Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” said that although her character, Tanya, opines that “Men suck sometimes,” she tends not to generalize about gender-based behavior. “Both sexes are capable of being their own worst enemy, both sexes are capable of being delusional,” she said.

That certainly applies to the male and female characters in “Hung,” whose emotional depth appears to be the product of long discussions and tight collaboration between its creators. Lipkin, as the child of immigrants, and Burson, a product of small-town Virginia, always viewed themselves as outsiders trying to fit into environments beyond their comfort zones. Later in life, they spent a dozen years struggling in New York to become playwrights.

Despite growing professional success on the West Coast -- Lipkin is creator and executive producer of FX’s “The Riches"; Burson’s writing credits include the 1999 feature “Coming Soon” with Mia Farrow, which she co-authored with Kate Robin -- that self-perception, and the ambition it feeds, hasn’t left either of them.

“We’re very attracted to people whose souls are yearning or aspirational, but they’re not fulfilled,” said Lipkin, again overlapping in conversation with his wife.

“Sometimes we think of ‘Hung’ as a comedy of awkwardness,” Burson chimed in. “I hope it will appeal to people with creative yearnings and idealism who are stuck in a non-creative place.”

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reed.johnson@latimes.com


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