Watching the slew of fresh American imports last night, the message came through loud and clear: the gloss has gone.
Now, instead of Desperate Housewives, we have desperate divorcés. Well, one, to be precise, and one so desperate that he turns to prostitution in a bid to improve his rotten lot by using the one, ahem, asset he has left. This is the premise of Hung, HBO's loudly heralded new series, which pulled in the network's largest premiere ratings in two years (2.8 million) when it debuted Stateside. No doubt a good few of them were drawn in by the titillating title, but Sex and the City this ain't. For a start, we're in the wrong city. This is Detroit, "the headwaters of a river of failure", as our world-weary narrator told us. As the camera panned desolately over Motor City's abandoned automobile plants and cranes ripping into the once majestic Tiger Stadium, he might just as well have said it's the place the American dream has gone to die.
And Ray Drecker is the dream's failure made flesh. Once most popular of the class of '84 and in proud possession of both a promising sports career and a beauty queen, he finds himself, a couple of decades down the line, in a criminally paid, dead-end teaching job, abandoned by his wife (a nicely unhinged Anne Heche) for the local rich boy dermatologist and living in a tent in the back garden of his parents' house, which he has managed to burn down. Oh, and his gothy kids can scarcely bear to look at him, let alone speak to him, unless it's to ask for money – which he doesn't have. It's no wonder his motivational pre-match talks to his school basketball team (on a losing streak, naturally) have taken on an air of desperation.
"When did life become something you buy?" he pondered briefly, but this maudlin narration soon cut away to an evening class in getting rich quick, which advised him to identify his money-making tool. And, lo, a rather gruff gigolo was born. The escort theme was far more sensitively dealt with than the title suggested it might be. In fact, there was hardly any sex at all in this episode, his first "job" never making it past the hotel corridor. How the writers (Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson, the husband-and-wife team behind Minnie Driver/Eddie Izzard vehicle The Riches) grapple with it in the coming weeks will be interesting, but here they struck a good balance between a kind of detached comedy and pathos.
As Drecker, Thomas Jane has a gravelly, lethargic voice that is quite at odds with his chiselled appearance but quite magnetic, too. His relationship with Tanya (Jane Adams) – a flaky, wannabe poet with a Proust tattoo who wants to make her millions from verse-infused baked goods ("Imagine a croissant folded around Maya Angelou's 'Phenomenal Woman'..."), but instead becomes Drecker's pimp – has intriguing promise.
This first episode was directed by the maker of Sideways ,Alexander Payne, a champion of the hangdog, who brought a lovely sense of place and a muted surrealism to events, somehow combining the apocalyptic with the mundane in the stunning fire scenes. Worth hanging around for for at least another couple of weeks, I'd say.
Modern Family, shot in no-nonsense mockumentary style, brought further evidence that gloss is gone. And that one now needs the peace-making skills of Barack Obama to negotiate the minefield that is modern marriage and parenting. It arrives here as ABC's great white hope for reviving the family sitcom, a new Roseanne from the writer-producer team behind Frasier and the most watched pilot of the new season in America. In this opener, we were introduced to three sets of parents and children – including the fairly broad-brush stereotypes of a feisty Colombian beauty married to a much older man and a silk dressing gown-clad gay couple who have just adopted a Vietnamese baby. Shot on frantic single camera, interspersed with talking heads on the family sofa, it ran as a series of vignettes whose punchlines were often not quite strong enough. Still, as with any sketch show, there were some hits among misses, not least a neat revelation of the links between the characters. I'd tune in again, just for Ty Burrell's "cool dad", whose hilarious attempts to father at the same time as being a best buddy involved embarrassing use of acronyms, a High School Musical dance routine and fist-bumps.
Finally, Curb Your Enthusiasm is back. This is the much-trailed Seinfeld reunion series, but there were no surprise faces in the opening episode. Instead, we saw an even more irritable and socially spiky Larry (who knew that were possible?) and the sowing of the seeds for his reunion with Cheryl and, by extension, his old Seinfeld crew. "When you were working on Seinfeld, that was the right amount of Larry," Cheryl told him. "We can reduce Larry to three hours a day," responded Larry, in a shock conciliatory moment. "I got 24-hour Larry, you think I like it?" Having always walked a tricky line between comedy and discomfort, this Curb was particularly cringe-making as Larry decided he needed to break-up with his girlfriend, Loretta, before she received her biopsy results. "You can't break up with someone who has cancer," averred Jeff.
It all felt a little more grotesquely awful than usual, with a teeth-grindingly awful dinner party, but Larry's floppy histrionic faint when he finally heard Loretta's diagnosis made it all worthwhile. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.
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