Hung: Never mind the length, feel the quality

New US comedy drama 'Hung' follows the exploits of a well-endowed sports coach who falls on hard times and becomes a gigolo, but beneath the prurient title lie more serious themes. By Gerard Gilbert

Hung is the title of a new HBO series coming to our TV screens next week – and, yes, the title does refer to that sort of "hung". So it's not Sister Wendy traipsing around the National Portrait Gallery, or a history of trapdoor capital punishment (because that, of course, would be "Hanged"). Hung is, let's make no boners about it, a comedy drama about a man with a big penis.

Actually, it's a lot more than that. Starring Thomas Jane as Ray, a divorced and increasingly marginalised Detroit school basketball coach who decides to make use of his largest remaining asset (his house having just burned down) and become a gigolo, Hung is a quirky and surprisingly tender odyssey through both the male midlife crisis and the female sexual psyche. But to return briefly to that title, there is something wonderfully brazen about Hung. It could well have been the name of one of Andy Warhol's Factory films, with Joe Dallesandro as a well-endowed hustler. And the Warhol connection is perhaps no coincidence because while the artist's glorified home movies were at the vanguard of American cinema's sexual revolution in the 1960s, so Hung is at the cutting edge of American TV's somewhat more belated sexual revolution.

The once heavily censored US airwaves are now full of actors talking about sex and simulating sex, and cable TV in general, and HBO in particular, are to be thanked (or blamed) for this. With upmarket liberal subscribers to please instead of controversy-sensitive advertisers, cable has continued pushing boundaries ever since it introduced nudity and swearing to a hitherto spotless American television in the early Nineties with Dream On. Since then shows like Sex and the City and, more recently, HBO's Tell Me You Love Me and Showtime's Californication have broadened American TV's sexual licence while managing to pick up awards at the same time. Indeed, a MADtv spoof of Sex and the City altered HBO's famous tagline from "It's not TV, it's HBO" to "It's not TV, it's porn with Emmys".

"Explicit television and quality television have become conflated in the public consciousness, largely because of HBO's success," wrote Newsweek magazine recently. "Graphic sex is not a necessity of good storytelling... It's a carrot the cable networks use to attract creative talent, people who have visions and don't want them compromised."

Two such creative talents are Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson, the married couple behind 'The Riches', the FX dramedy in which Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver played Irish Traveller con artists in Louisiana. Lipkin and Burson are also the brains behind Hung, and I asked them whether the show's rather startling scenario made for a hard (unfortunate puns being almost unavoidable) sell when they started pitching it to TV executives.

"We never pitched it to the networks... always cable... but for cable it was actually an enticing idea," says Lipkin. "I was actually shocked," adds Burson. "I mean, we would say the words 'large penis' and it was like candy to kids at Christmas. Literally, it was like, 'Where do we sign the cheque?'"

"In a way, the penis thing is a bit of a Trojan horse," says Lipkin. "One of the things we were interested in was the male psyche versus the female psyche. Ray's a voyager in the world of women... and we came to realise more and more that there was something electric about a man and a woman alone in a room together with sex on the table, as a commercial exchange, a terrifying transaction full of drama."

Indeed, these scenes are among the funniest and most touching I've seen in a long while, but there is surprisingly little nudity in Hung – and as for the Ray's allegedly enormous member, Lipkin and Burson reckon some things may be best left to the imagination. "We sometimes referred to it as the magical penis – in the sense that, 'When are we going to see this penis?' or 'What's it going to look like?' and we came to think of it as being the perfect penis for any woman that saw it."

Will we ever see Ray's "magical penis"? "Without answering the question", replies Lipkin, "we have to be very careful about how one does see it because we want to treat that in an imaginative and unexpected way." He does however agree that these particular appendages are still generally something of a television no-no. "On True Blood, you see some penises but they aren't of the lead male actors. It's still very, very rare to see lead actors with any kind of nudity."

Take a bow then David Duchovny, the erstwhile X Files star who, as a sex-addicted New York author, Hank Moody, regularly bares all in 'Californication', Showtime's wickedly funny saga of Tinseltown hedonism. While Duchovny as Hank does everything in his power to affront the moral minority, from snorting cocaine off a hooker's bottom or dreaming of receiving oral sex from a nun and sleeping with a legally underage girl (she's 16), it seems that some of this sexual licence is trickling down to the once squeaky clean networks.

"The networks are definitely trying to keep up with cable channels in terms of content and viewers," says Laura Fries of the industry trade paper Variety. "I would even bet that at this point, the networks are willing to risk fines and the ire of censors and conservative groups in exchange for better ratings. Meanwhile, it has trickled down. I've noticed a lot of leeway on the part of networks. For instance, you hear more slang and phrases and situations that would have been censored a few years ago."

Perhaps some sort of tipping point was reached with Sex and the City, the world-beating tale of Carrie Bradshaw and female New Yorker friends. HBO began screening Darren Starr's loose adaptation of Candace Bushnell's collected journalism back in 1998, but it only found a true mass audience in syndication on what is known as "basic cable" – that is to say cable stations who still have conservatives and advertisers to take into consideration. And while syndication meant some sanitisation, it also led to a blurring of boundaries between paid-for cable channels and the mass market.

"Sex and the City really broke a lot of barriers in terms of making sex and intimate relationships a part of everyday life and discourse. You couldn't find a show about relationships that doesn't address it in some way now," says Fries. "You don't have to go to cable to get taboo or formerly censored subjects. If a series such as 90210, or Gossip Girl, is addressing sex, then shows like Californication, which can even make me blush, and Hung have to go a step further. They definitely have to push the envelope to distinguish themselves from the networks. "

Another cable show that's been pushing that particular envelope is HBO's now-cancelled Tell Me You Love Me, which chronicled three couples in various stages of crisis with their sex life. There was so much speculation about whether the actors were really having sex or not that the show's creator, Cynthia Mort, went on record to state that all the intercourse was simulated. Indeed, there are signs that the balance might be moving now in the opposite direction, that after several years of experimentation and a new-found sense of liberation, American TV is shifting back to the middle ground.

Swingtown, for example, was a frank look back at sexual liberation in Seventies suburbia, of spouse-swapping, open marriages and key parties, and as such seemed like a natural for HBO. But when HBO passed on the series because the cable channel already had too many broadly similar shows, it was the fusty old network CBS who took it on board. Of course, it had to clean it up, but according to "Swingtown's" creator, the process was curiously liberating. "We came out with something stronger," said show deviser Mike Kelley. "It just allowed us to be freer to explore the characters without having to make as much happen in the bedroom. It's about the relationships that develop outside of the sexual moments. It's refreshing, frankly."

Of course, he would say that, wouldn't he, although it didn't prevent Kelley's show being axed after one season. But then the point had already been made that when Sex and the City was re-edited for wider consumption, little seemed to be lost. "Sex and the City certainly shows lots of carnal activity, but it was also a show about relationships and the enduring friendships of four single women," says Joshua Alston of Newsweek. "The characters and stories did not suffer for not having the license to actually show the slapping and tickling. It's difficult to make the case that copious sex makes for a better story if it can all be edited out with little impact on the narrative."

'Hung' begins on Thursday 15 October at 9pm on More4

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