I don’t think when I thought about adjectives I might use to describe a show about a new gigolo with a giant penis that “sweet” would be among those adjectives. But “sweet” is the best word to describe “The Pickle Jar,” Hung’s fourth episode and easily its best so far. This is the episode that convinced me there would be a show here, going forward, because it both discovered a way to play up the tension of what Ray’s doing for a living now in contrast to his everyday life (in numerous ways) and also discovered a way to show how this could be something oddly life-affirming for Ray and his clients. I realize that what Ray and Tanya are trafficking in is illegal, but unlike most shows where doing something illegal corrupts a person’s soul, Hung suggests that sex is a way you might awaken parts of yourself that have lain dormant for far too long. That Hung is choosing to be a sweet show about male prostitution is what’s going to keep me watching. It’s not the tone I would have chosen, but they’re executing it remarkably well.
The scenes that garner the “sweet” appellation from me tonight all involve Margo Martindale’s character, Molly. Martindale is a fascinating character actress, with her larger frame, plain face and unruly hair. She’s almost always asked to play ugly, heavyset women who occasionally have ugly souls. She was even the ultimate ugly American in Paris, je t’aime. That Martindale is often cast as small-minded women is a fault of casting directors, not her performances, because she’s a wonderfully open and expressive actor, particularly deft at conveying a sadness that’s masked by a particularly convincing brand of faux-happiness. And this is the quality Hung taps into in “The Pickle Jar,” as she plays a woman hiring Ray to make her feel what sex should really feel like.
This whole storyline is an uncomfortable dance around a subject the show hasn’t really dealt with before: If Ray is going to be a successful prostitute, he’s going to have to sleep with people he’s not attracted to. Whether this means he’s going to have to start popping Viagra or whether it means he’s just going to have to really start to connect with women’s minds (like Tanya suggests) remains to be seen, though the latter seems like too much of a fantasy (though, granted, the sex scenes on this show often have a fairy tale-esque overtone – whether dealing with lonely princess Molly or evil witch Lenore, Ray is having to confront very old feminine archetypes in his sexual journey). Tonight, at least, it worked, as Ray discovered that giving other people what they wanted could lead to him getting what he wanted (like the money to pay for that beam he needs to repair his house).
At first, it seems as though Ray just didn’t like Molly, as their first encounter goes poorly, Ray excusing himself to go home and “get better,” even though he wasn’t really sick before. But then we see him actually recuperating, overcoming a bug brought on by sleeping in the cold, yes, but also by, it would seem, something psychosomatic, as he tries to beg out of bedding Molly with Tanya (who refuses any such idea). Properly set back on the right course by his pimp, Ray returns to Molly’s room, and the scene that ensues, where Molly tells him just how lonely she is, just how much her husband demands of her and just how little she gets in return, is a vividly wrought little scene. It must have been murderously hard to write without becoming too saccharine, but series creators Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin (who also wrote this episode) nail the bittersweetness of the whole moment, which allows the final beats, when Molly decides she will have sex with Ray after all, to take on a tone of odd triumph, both for Ray and Tanya, who are going to get their business off the ground finally, but also for Molly, who’s about to experience something she never has.
Is it a little unbelievable that a high school coach would just suddenly discover a unique talent for pleasing women both in the sack and emotionally? Definitely. Given how brusque Ray’s been in previous episodes, this could feel like it comes out of nowhere (though, as the show re-establishes tonight, the guy usually knows what to say to his kids to make them feel better). But I’m more interested in the way the show is not following the Weeds and Breaking Bad template of having the hero’s illegal actions consume him utterly. Hung views sex as a way that people can experience just a tiny amount of pleasure, even in a world that’s utterly falling apart. Tanya knew that Ray made her feel good, and she thought she could expand that to the world at large. Now, he’s given Molly a small measure of happiness, and surely that will spread just as much. Sex, in the world of Hung, is neither rigid or fearful; it’s something that liberates people and draws them together. It’s the great leveler, where even a rich woman like Molly can be a bit bashful about saying what she really wants until she gets a good look at it. TV tends to be a bit prurient about sex, either tiptoeing around it or showing so much of it that it ceases to lose its allure. Hung suggests that sex is alluring precisely because we needn’t tiptoe around it. We can let it make us very happy indeed.
The other characters, even Tanya, didn’t get nearly as much to do this week, as this was all about Ray overcoming the last mental hurdles he needed to embrace his new life. Those hurdles, in a way, are symbolized by that pickle jar he keeps carrying around, one last tether to a life that’s leaving him unsatisfied (notice how he frequently repeats the litany of all of the things he HAS BEEN throughout the episode, a past he’s not yet entirely comfortable with shedding). He appreciates that the kids at his school banded together to help him out in his hour of need, but it’s not enough. Everyone in the world of Hung is discovering that there are bills they have to pay, debts coming up on their lives, and nothing they have is ever enough, no matter how nice it is to have it. Ray and Tanya are mostly interested in making the money they think they deserve, but a strange byproduct of all of this is that they’re bringing happiness to people who haven’t had a measure of it in ages. It’s the sweetest show about utter desperation you’ll ever see.
- I have basically nothing to say about Jessica this week. She’s back to the shrill stereotype she was in the first two episodes, and I hope that Burson and Lipkin remember the wonderful things they did with her last week.
- The kids, on the other hand, are beginning to take on new shades with every episode. I’m finally intrigued by just how angry Damon got when defending his sister. Is he trying to hold the family together a little too tightly?
- A thought from my wife: "What I like best about Ray is that he's a traditional, straight-up, all-American sitcom dad. And he's a prostitute. And those two things don't contradict each other, really."
- Is there any way this Lenore subplot doesn’t eventually lead to Jessica hiring Ray? How is that not the season finale cliffhanger?
- Sorry for the lateness this week. Getting back from Comic-Con took way longer than anticipated, and I didn’t have the screener along to get my second viewing in so I could write this up while in San Diego.