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HBO's new show is 'Hung' up on bitterness

Watching the first few episodes of HBO's ambitious series about a well-endowed ex-football star who becomes a male prostitute — dubbed, in a subtle move, Hung — one question persisted. • Will we, um, actually see it? • As it turns out, star Thomas Jane doesn't go full frontal in the first four episodes, playing a high school teacher and coach pushed into selling himself by a devastating divorce and house fire. Instead, Hung is amazingly unsexy, set in a dreary pocket of Detroit and focused on an increasingly disillusioned cadre of characters. • As the show debuts at 10 tonight on HBO, here's a look and what works and what doesn't:

What Works

Thomas Jane

Known for an electric turn as Mickey Mantle in HBO's baseball drama *61 and much less amazing turns in shlock movies like The Punisher, Jane is mesmerizing as overwhelmed everyman Ray Drecker. Stuck living in a tent beside a family home gutted by fire, Drecker seems stunned at how his promising future turned into such a bitter reality.

The absurdity

Like Showtime's Weeds, Hung's power comes from putting an average family through a sordidly twisted situation. In this case, Drecker and a mousy poet/ex-lover (Tanya Skagle, played by Jane Adams) become the oddest whore/pimp combination in TV history, tiptoeing into the skin trade with an awkward desperation.

What doesn't

Anne Heche

Bloated and barely recognizable, Heche plays Drecker's two-timing ex-wife with all the bitter irrationality you might expect from such a classic real life space case. Let's just say it's a role that hits a little too close to home.

The darkness

Hung is driven by a relentlessly punishing pessimism, with characters ranging from mildly deluded losers to rip-roaring emotional psychopaths. It seems calculated to create a reality so emasculating, Drecker's new pride as an undercover sex worker makes more sense. It's too bitter to taste too often.

Ti-NO

Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech, debuts at

9 p.m. Monday on HBO: This sprawling documentary focuses on the most extreme combatants in the fight over free speech in America, throwing off a lot of heated rhetoric without much enlightenment. Recounting how former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill lost his job amid controversy over a pointed essay on the 9/11 attacks, the film fails to explore several legitimate criticisms about Churchill while casting him as the victim of a right-wing witch hunt. The filmmakers here seemed to forget that good journalism often works best with a little context.

Ti-NO

Dance Your Ass Off, debuts at 10 p.m. Monday on Oxygen: This show stumbles by creating an awkward blend of The Biggest Loser and Dancing With the Stars — where a cadre of overweight dancers compete to lose the most weight and shake their groove thangs best. But for viewers used to seeing the sleek professionals on network TV dance shows, this expanse of jiggling competitors might bring a shock.

the list

The death Tuesday of TV's ultimate sidekick, Tonight Show announcer Ed McMahon, raised a natural question: Who are the next best guys at that job?

Here's my list:

Paul Shaffer. The best of those who are left, David Letterman's nerdily eccentric bandleader is actually a combo of talk TV's best icons, McMahon and former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen.

Regis Philbin. Probably nobody reading this remembers, but Philbin served as sidekick to comic Joey Bishop on his ABC talk show in 1967, once getting so upset at Bishop's needling he walked off the show.

Al Roker. Witty, quirky and occasionally a little naughty, Roker is so good at propping up his pals on the Today show, it looks effortless.

Andy Richter, Version One. When Richter first popped up as partner to Conan O'Brien during the host's disastrous early days replacing Letterman on NBC's Late Night, he jumped hip-deep into O'Brien's steeped-in-silliness approach.

Hank Kingsley. He may have been fictional, but The Larry Sanders Show's needy, obsequious second fiddle — played to perfection by the often-underrated Jeffrey Tambor (Hey now!) — adroitly skewered all the insecurities we suspected about sidekicks like McMahon.

HBO's new show is 'Hung' up on bitterness 06/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:41pm]
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