For all the hullabaloo surrounding the controversial sex scenes and predatory imagery in The Idol's premiere episode, nothing was more scandalous than Jane Adams' blistering performance as record-label executive Nikki Katz. Nikki's jaded, conscience-free strategies to sell Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) as a sexual object set the tone for the depraved version of Hollywood that Sam Levinson, Abel Tesfaye, and Reza Fahim are depicting in their show. While Depp was giving vacant pop object and Tesfaye was swanning around looking vampiric, Adams tore into her handful of scenes, rolled her eyes at anyone younger than 30, and projected authority in a sea of amateurs.
It's a great performance, and one that takes Adams away from what's been her bread and butter as an actress. She's been a reliable presence in indie films for going on 30 years now, often playing anxious, flighty, beleaguered women for filmmakers like Todd Solondz, Robert Altman, and Amy Seimetz. But if there's one role that bridges the gap between Adams' indie persona and her performance on The Idol, it's that of Tanya Skagle on the HBO series Hung.
Unlike more enduring HBO series like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Game of Thrones, Hung could not be more of a creature of its own time. Premiering in 2009 and mired in Great Recession anxiety and urban blight (the show is set in Detroit), Hung starred Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a high school teacher and coach dealing with an ex-wife who left him for a surgeon, two kids who don't really like him all that much, and a house that just halfway burned down. Through his an inner monologue, Ray rants about the state of the world and how a man used to be able to provide for his family, though that's more of a problem for the audience than Ray. The hook of the show is that the one thing Ray has going for him is his relatively large penis, which he eventually puts to good use as a sex worker. He does so at the urging of Tanya (Adams), a neurotic poet and two-night stand of Ray's who gets the idea to go into business with him as his pimp.
In its tone and premise, Hung always felt like the Showtime-iest of HBO's shows, having more in common with Weeds and Nurse Jackie, shows about ordinary people forced by economic necessity or extraordinary circumstance into doing something scandalous to make ends meet. If Hung had been purely about Ray, it probably wouldn't have been much worth watching. The show saddles itself with Ray's inner monologue which groans about his male displacement in the modern world, bemoaning his property taxes and "greedy beauty-queen ex-wife."
Thank goodness, then, for Tanya, who gives the show a much needed burst of off-kilter energy. She's a poet, with all the stereotypical flightiness that entails, right down to the "Proust" tattoo. She re-encounters Ray at a continuing-education class for entrepreneurship, where her big idea is "lyric bread," i.e., baked goods with lines from famous poems baked into them. But she sees right through Ray. After they have sex a second time and he tries blowing her off, she calls him an egotistical asshole and, in insulting him, gives him the idea to monetize his endowment.
Tanya's efforts to be the best pimp she can be are by far the more interesting story in Hung. She's not great at first. She gets taken advantage of by sociopathic personal shopper Lenore (Rebecca Creskoff, also excellent), who ends up trying to horn in on Tanya's business. Adams brings the stammering incredulity that has so often defined her indie roles, and it becomes incredibly easy to root for Tanya's professional fulfillment more than anything else in the show.
Honestly, it wouldn't take much to view The Idol’s Nikki as Tanya having achieved her final form as a pimp. Nikki has seen it all, and she has no illusions about sex as anything but a commodity. The way she sneers at Troye Sivan's Xander for "cock-blocking" Jocelyn's photo shoot, or the way she explains that mental illness is "sexy" because it allows every middle-American nobody to think they could realistically have a shot with a hot girl like Jocelyn — it's Tanya after a decade and a half of being demystified and hardened by the flesh trade. What is Jocelyn to Nikki but another version of a gym teacher whose physical gifts make him uniquely profitable?
You don't need to set up a conspiracy board to connect the dots from Tanya to Nikki in order to enjoy the way Jane Adams plays both those characters. Nikki’s self-interest with regard to Jocelyn's career is far more blatant than Tanya’s ever was with Ray. Perhaps that's a testament to the way that TV today looks at the exploitation of sex in pop culture through a more complex lens than it did 14 years ago.
If nothing else, the characters of Tanya and Nikki are a testament to Jane Adams' versatility as an actress. If you'd only ever seen her as the fragile woman getting obscene phone calls in Happiness or Ava's neurotic mom on Hacks, both Hung and The Idol show off her impressive range. If The Idol ends up more interested in dead-eyed pop stars and the Svengali-like club owners who prey upon them, you can at least dip back into Hung for your Jane Adams fix.
Hung is streaming in its entirety on Max.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.