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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Good news for Alexander Payne fans: He's back with 'Hung'

June 10, 2009 |  5:01 pm

Alexanderpayne It's been five lo-o-o-o-o-o-ng years since Alexander Payne last directed a film of his own, the sparkling comic romp through Santa Barbara wine country known as "Sideways." For the past few years, the filmmaker has been largely out of sight, focused on an ambitious "Dr. Strangelove"-style futuristic social statement comedy. The script is rumored to be dazzlingly original but too costly to get financing from Fox Searchlight, which distributed "Sideways," meaning that the project will be run through 20th Century Fox if it gets made inside the News Corp. empire.

Eager to take a breather, Payne has made something of a leap, directing the pilot for "Hung," the HBO comedy that debuts June 28 at 10 p.m. The show stars Thomas Jane as a woebegone but well-endowed high school PE teacher who exploits his best asset -- hence the show's title -- and embarks on a new career as a male escort. Payne was recruited by Sue Nagel, HBO's new original programming chief, who was a fan of his work and suspected that Payne's sensibility -- especially his ability to depict characters who could laugh at themselves, even in the midst of midlife crisis -- would be a perfect fit for "Hung."

In TV, the showrunner is king. So it was something of an adjustment for a final cut director like Payne to defer to "Hung's" writer-producer team of Dimitry Lipkin and Colette Burson, but those in the Payne camp say the filmmaker came away with a renewed regard for the polish and professionalism of his TV brethren.

But see for yourself. Here's a clip from the pilot episode:

Photo: Alexander Payne. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times.