It’s hard to avoid bad puns when discussing HBO’s critically acclaimed series “Hung.” The half-hour comedy-drama revolves around Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), a broke Detroit high school basketball coach who decides to become a gigolo when he realizes his “winning tool” — as his self-help guru puts it — is his supersized Johnson. There is also Ray’s idealistic poet-pimp, Tanya, who envisions him as a “happiness consultant”; Ray’s high-strung ex-wife (Anne Heche); their two sullen teenagers; and Tanya’s predatory competitor, Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff).
But “Hung” — whose second season premieres June 27 — far transcends its provocative title. The series has been lauded for its sweet-sad, nuanced portrayal of characters struggling with mid-life crises, the economic downturn and frayed American dreams.
Dmitry Lipkin, the Russian Jewish émigré who created the series with his wife, Colette Burson, sees Ray as an immigrant of sorts. “The series tracks his journey into the world of the feminine,” Lipkin said during an interview in the “Hung” offices on the Paramount Pictures lot. “Ray is an ex-jock who knows nothing about women, [but]who is forced to try to understand them.”
Season two will push the gigolo even further in this regard: “The types of clients he’ll be dealing with and confronting will make things tougher for him psychologically,” Lipkin said.
Lipkin won’t discuss whether the gigolo will reveal more of himself, anatomically speaking. “We’ve tried to avoid things that are expected or salacious,” he said. “But you never know — we could always expose Ray.”
For all its sexual encounters, “Hung” is surprisingly unsexy. “We’re not interested in the world of prostitution or its trappings,” Lipkin explained. “We’re exploring the emotional dynamic between people through the prism of sexuality — and in pushing our characters to do things that are outside of their comfort zone.”
On a recent afternoon in the “Hung” writers’ room, the walls were crowded with index cards outlining ideas and questions such as: “How could stresses from Ray’s life affect his gigolo job?” Seven dainty decorative plates listed the names of the seven deadly sins. An acupuncturist was on-call, and an algae concoction was guzzled to keep concentration acute until quitting time, usually midnight.
In his office, Lipkin sat across from a promotional poster depicting mug shots of a bewildered-looking Tanya and Ray underscored by the words “Pimp” and “Ho.” “I’m fascinated by people from one world who suddenly find themselves lost in another,” he said.
Lipkin, now 42, was 10 when his father, an engineer, and his mother, a dentist, applied to leave what he calls “the soul-killing context” of the former Soviet Union. But instead of moving to a Russian Jewish enclave such as Brighton Beach, N.Y., the Lipkins accepted an invitation for sponsorship by the Jewish community of Baton Rouge, La. They were only the second Russian family to settle in that city.
“The experience was extremely strange, confusing and disorienting,” Lipkin said. “We never discussed being Jewish in Russia, because it wasn’t something you celebrated,” he explained. “But when we left, I realized it was because we’re Jewish. Then, suddenly, we were the focus of this Jewish community because of this identity we didn’t really have. So there was a lot of identity creation that happened for me, fast.”
Lipkin enthusiastically embraced his Judaism, becoming bar mitzvah, attending Jewish camp and even volunteering to be circumcised at 12.
“I always think of it as Dmitry feeling like he was stepping up to reclaim his Jewish ancestry from the ash heap of being lost in Russia,” Burson told National Public Radio, speaking about the circumcision.
“I think it’s why I became a writer,” Lipkin said of this reshaping of his body and persona. “If you have the ability to fashion a new identity for yourself out of the ether, you either become a sociopath or an artist.”
Lipkin struggled as a playwright in New York for a decade before creating his first television show, “The Riches,” about a clan of con artists who decide to impersonate a deceased family. The clan’s matriarch, played by Minnie Driver, learns that the late Mrs. Rich was Jewish and thus feigns to be a member of the Tribe. In one episode, she must frenetically cover for herself when she obtusely serves pork at a dinner party. “I liked the idea of characters who reinvent themselves by pretending to be something they’re not,” Lipkin said. “I wrote the family as if they were immigrants, even though they’re from the United States.”
“Hung’s” Ray is also a stranger in a strange land — not only in the world of women, but as a faded golden boy hitting middle age. His wife left him for an excruciatingly nerdy dermatologist, his day job doesn’t pay the bills and after his house burned down he was obliged to live in a tent in the shadow of his snooty neighbor’s mansion. Not to mention the inevitable indignities of the flesh trade. “Ray is the consummate insider who is forced to become an outsider,” Lipkin said. “All our characters are these misfits that I love.”
Tanya has a Scottish father and a Jewish mother (Rhea Perlman), the latter of whose dismissive, critical manner suggests one source of her low-esteem. But Tanya is no sad sack, Lipkin insists: “She has a masochistic streak that is keeping her down, but she can also be super bold,” he said. “I love that she has not chosen to take the easy route in life.”
“The great thing about television,” Lipkin said, “is that you start out with a show about a guy with a large penis and a poet-pimp, but then you can go from there and create anything.”