So if Hung is a wannabe whimsical fairy tale uneasily married to a faux-naturalistic directorial style that makes it feel more realistic than it probably wants to be, then at some point, the show has to confront that dialectic head on. And for the most part it does in “Doris Is Dead” or “Are We Rich or Are We Poor?” where several characters’ fantasies either built up to the point where they became unsafe or completely crumbled around them. It’s tempting to say that these characters live in fantasies or in their own pasts like that’s a bad thing, but I’m not sure it is. All life needs just a little escapism in it. The problem comes when you let the escapism overwhelm the reality of your situation (or when you become a TV critic).
The central basis of the episode is pretty much Pretty Woman, if you think about it. Ray thinks he’s falling in love with Jemma, and she’s doing a very good job of acting as though she is too. The problem is that Jemma is clearly batshit insane, and the fantasy she’s constructed for herself has somehow wrapped Ray into it too. Ray only wants to be happy, and the world that Jemma has constructed for him and her is a place where both of them are pretty happy or at least working toward it. But she’s also someone who wants to pay for his services so she can attend couples counseling with him and work through what appears to be grief from former relationships on her new, fake relationship.
The way the story goes is that the prostitute meets the rich john who wants her to be his girlfriend, so intoxicated by her is he. But in that story, it’s because she’s just that lovely and perfect and special, not because he’s unable to find any other female companionship or anything like that. So, gradually, she breaks down, tells her more and more about herself, and then he saves her at the end (as the light pop hit plays). It’s an old, old story, and it is because it plays into a number of common fantasies on both sides of the aisle. I don’t know if Hung would have gone in this very direction had it been about a female prostitute and a male pimp (I kind of think this story is too engrained in our collective subconscious), but they used the storyline here to twist the knife about how unrealistic that story is – and how unrealistic its characters are to believe it.
The whole thing hinges on Tanya accidentally letting Ray’s real name slip to Jemma. Before that, Ray’s pretty clearly just her way to work through some stuff. After that, he becomes a real person and someone she can draw more tightly into her orbit. Obviously, she’s working at this already before Tanya tells her Ray’s name (she is paying him directly, after all), but I don’t know that she would have been willing to push Ray at that dinner date had she not known his real name. And then she gets him to tell her his job. And from there, it’s an easy step to his full name, where he works, all that stuff. And from there, it’s easy enough for her to show up at the next game he’s coaching, even as Tanya, having cut short a fun-filled evening of watching Nanook of the North, has come out to support him and has clearly allowed his family to labor under the suspicion that she’s his girlfriend.
When Jemma shows up, the series pushes aggressively forward into fantasy territory, though it’s a different fantasy than before. Now, we’re in the sports movie, where the band of ragtag losers comes together under the leadership of an inspirational coach to win the big game and stop their longtime losing streak. The whole thing plays out like any given Disney sports tale, right down to the last-second shot that wins the whole game and the very cadence of Ray’s speech in the huddle as his team tries to come back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit. And, the thing is, it’s the sort of fantasy you could see working. It’s the sort of fantasy that does work in the real world every so often (if you just give the kids somethin’ to believe in!). It’s the sort of fantasy that doesn’t strike us as egregiously absurd, even if the whole basis for it – Jemma coming and giving Ray the strength to be a better coach – is actually pretty bizarre in and of itself. The whole sequence leaned on the fantasy button a little too heavily for me, keeping it below the sublime previous two episodes, but the series almost rescued it entirely by having Tanya point out how stupid Ray is for giving all of that information to a woman who pretty clearly has a number of issues that won’t be so easy to resolve.
Jessica, meanwhile, is also dealing in her own ways with the divide between the fantasy world she was living in and the realistic world she lives in now. I didn’t entirely like the tone of the scene where Jessica and her mom snuck around her husband’s office to find out how much money he’s lost, but the final revelation – that he’s lost well over $800,000 – was chilling enough to undercut all of the other cutesiness going on here. It sure seems like he’s gotten in too deep, like he’s been racking up the debt and hoping for things to turn around, but that silver lining remains stubbornly around the corner.
I know there was some discussion in comments last week about how Ronnie’s decision to put down the dog was the right decision to make, even if the show seemed to want to make us think that he was a heartless monster for that. I can see this point of view, but I’m not sure it’s so cut-and-dried on the part of the show. It’s becoming clear that the show is both a fairy tale and a cautionary tale about fairy tales and the limits of their abilities. Now that Jessica’s fairy tale of a life well provided for is coming to an end, she’s reexamining all of the things she had to buy into to get this far, and Ronnie has to function less as a caring figure and more as someone who needs to cut to the quick and get her to see how skewed her priorities have become. He’s being a caring figure long-term – if she follows his instructions, the family will be better off for it – but in the short-term, through Jessica’s eyes, he’s a jerk.
All in all, “Doris Is Dead” wasn’t the show’s best episode yet, but it was an interesting look at where this show has been and where it’s going as it heads into its final four episodes of the season (which reportedly pull all of this together to make the show work for people who generally enjoy it but are skeptical of it). It was a fine time, yes, but unlike the other episodes, I didn’t really laugh or smile once. It’s wry, yes, but the series is increasingly holding off a darkness that keeps it from being hilarious. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
- Sorry for the lateness of this. Doing all three HBO shows in one night has driven me mad.
- I like how Damon’s point-of-view on the world is slowly coming into view in these episodes. He’s a pretty funny kid, all things considered.