Who knew watching The Punisher serving lonely ladies would be so much fun?

I speak of "Hung," the HBO half-hour dramedy that casts Thomas Jane as Ray, a high school basketball coach forced to moonlight as a male prostitute to make ends meet, due to that whole economic downturn thing. (Perhaps you've heard of it?) The first season "? all 10 episodes of it "? are now available on DVD.

The extended pilot directed by Alexander Payne ("Sideways") is relentlessly downbeat, and too much so, leaving the viewer with mixed feelings. But it lays the necessary groundwork, and each episode thereafter is a marked improvement "? even buoyantly "? so stick with it.

Not exactly being an expert with gigolo matters, Ray arrives at his new night job at the suggestion of sad-sack poet, Tanya (Jane Adams). She enjoyed a one-night stand with Ray years ago, and being in a recession rut herself, realizes that his extraordinarily large member could be quite the moneymaking tool. Thus, Tanya offers to be his pimp.

Them learning the ins and outs of the business comprises the bulk of the episodes, as they cross paths with a bitchy "life stylist" (the wonderful Rebecca Creskoff) who lobbies for free samples; a manipulative client (a convincing Natalie Zea) for whom Ray comes to harbor genuine feelings; and the bored Eastern European wife (a surprising Alanna Ubach) of Ray's vindictive, wealthy next-door neighbor (Loren Lester).

As if that weren't enough, Ray has to battle with his ex-wife, Jessica (Anne Heche, restoring her rep), who's now married to a mousy, but controlling dermatologist (Eddie Jemison). Most of his tiffs with Jessica involve their emotionally damaged children, one of whom (Charlie Saxton) might be, in Ray's words, "a gay." Oh, and his house caught on fire, so he has to sleep in a tent in his backyard and pee in the lake.

I've always liked Jane for his old-school, square-jawed screen presence in big-budget movies like "Deep Blue Sea," but this may his first chance to really, truly act, and he knocks it out of the park. You root for him, rather than be repelled by his immoral choices. Adams is his equal in excellence as Tanya, a social outcast with mommy issues whom no one takes seriously. You feel genuine empathy for her character.

As is the case with much of HBO's programming, this is smartly written, cannily acted entertainment for adults. (And I do mean adults; lock the doors to keep the kids walking in on the most inopportune moments.) I can't wait to see season two.

The double-disc set includes a few features, most promotional in nature. Best among them is a pair of video "personal ads" featuring Ray and Tanya. Although out of continuity with the show's rules, they're amusing nonetheless. "?Rod Lott

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