August 27th, 2009
If you were quite a hawk-eyed reader of the blog, you might have seen a few weeks ago that I was convinced Royal Pains was ending its first season when Burn Notice ended the first half of its third, with a relationship-driven cliffhanger regarding the pairing of Hank and Jill. I was mistaken, of course – the show kept going, and this past Thursday it came to its finale and delivered something a little bit different. And “Wonderland” was a finale, of sorts, but one that is really strangely placed in terms of why I kept watching Royal Pains all summer.
It’s the show that really “broke out” in USA’s biggest summer ever, but the reasons it remained engaging for me as a viewer really has nothing to do with the show’s characters, at least for the most part. While some of these shows work due to the quality of their ensemble, the characters have felt ancillary to the premise and the aesthetic elements of the series. The show’s Hamptons setting is intriguing in the potential for us to meet recurring clients, and to embrace a world where the very rich and the very poor tend to interact on a regular basis – it opens up the potential for unique cases not seen on other medical shows, while in a breezy enough location to keep things from getting too serious.
However, this was a finale that went back to very basic procedural diagnosis drama, and that returned to the core relationship between the show’s regular characters which…well, I don’t want to be mean, but I don’t particularly care. I don’t dislike Hank, and I find Divya’s life quite interesting, but both Evan and Jill have been criminally underwritten, and the episode’s efforts to put roadblocks between their relationships is actually fundamentally false in terms of building suspense for a second season. The show has a stable of recurring players who I’ve grown quite accustomed to, and to put them into danger or to build suspense around them would actually feel final.
Instead, we’re putting roadblocks between characters who aren’t going anywhere, and whose divisions will be temporary before the show enters into its same comfortable rhythm next season.
August 20th, 2009
There’s really two trajectories for USA Network series as they approach the end of their first seasons.
The first is that they find a second gear, discovering another level of their structure where they are able to tell bigger and better stories. Burn Notice, of course, is the quintessential example of this, finding in its season one cliffhanger and then into its second season an entirely new identity that made the best possible use of its characters and setting to deliver some great television.
However, nearly every other USA Network series finds cruise control, that place where they are able to drift along at roughly the same, amiable pace as they began. This doesn’t mean that the shows are boring: I’d place Psych into this category, and I’d argue the show is still pretty fresh despite my refusal to keep watching it (time commitments, is all!). Rather, it means that their sense of identity becomes grounded and simplified in the face of potential expansion, finding a comfortable rhythm with which to become familiar and consistent with viewers.
With its final set of episodes heading into the finale, especially the primary focus of “Nobody’s Perfect,” I think Royal Pains is officially settling into the second category, and I think it’s really the only option. This isn’t a show like Burn Notice that feels like its universe could really expand: the laid back style of the Hampton’s has created a cast of characters who by necessity are not going to present broader threats, and the serialized elements like Hank’s previous firing are handled here almost entirely off-screen and brushed aside (mostly) by the end of the episode.
This is just a simple summer show, and one that has found its stride enough for me to say that it moving into cruise control about now will be enough to keep me watching, if not analyzing week after week.
“It’s Like Jamais Vu All Over Again”
August 6th, 2009
Alan Sepinwall has often talked about how, with TBS’ My Boys, the season finale cliffhangers are almost always of a nature where he as a critic doesn’t actually care about them. TBS asks critics not to talk about the result of the latest love triangle, or such trifling things, whereas Alan (and myself) watch the show for the sense of camaraderie, the sharp dialogue, etc.
I feel very much the same way about Royal Pains, a show that in its first half season has made quite a ratings splash but has failed to really connect with me on an individual level. It isn’t that the show is by any means bad, but rather that there is nothing standing out for me. I was going to start this review by complaining that they, like My Boys, chose one of the least interesting parts of the show on which to hang their hat when it came time to focus on a “Cliffhanger” (loose definition, I assure you), but then I realized something: I don’t know if there’s actually an interesting part.
I don’t think that’s a condemnation of the show, but it is the kind of thing which keeps an episode like “It’s Like Jamais Vu All Over Again” from feeling all that, well, interesting. It’s not that the case itself is that poorly drawn, or that the various interpersonal elements weren’t up to par. Instead, it is simply an example of a show where the focus seems to be on the element of the show, the love triangles and the like, that really does absolutely nothing for me, leaving me to wonder if the rest of the show will ever remain as in focus as I’d like it to.
Only time, and the new few weeks, will tell.
“The Honeymoon’s Over”
July 30th, 2009
There are moments when watching a summer show that you start to realize just how much you’ve been treating it as a summer show, and at the start of tonight’s episode of Royal Pains I had one of those moments. As Jill and Hank seemed to be at some sort of relationship crossroads, I realized something: I have no idea why. I don’t even think I care to know why. Something apparently happened in last week’s episode that made Jill weary of any kind of actual relationship – I remember something about a summer crush, and concerns over Hank leaving, but I didn’t think things were quite as cold as they seemed to be.
And really, this is the problem with a show like Royal Pains where the conflict in each individual episode is contained, meaning that any conflicts needs to come from the same people each and every week. For Burn Notice (which I haven’t watched yet, but might blog about to get back in the swing of things), this is achieved through a single storyline that while occasionally repetitive is quite focused on one idea and executed as such. With Royal Pains, however, it seems like they want to just keep pulling out the Jill/Hank relationship drama card, and to be honest I don’t think it’s working for me. I don’t find they have a terrible amount of chemistry, and it just isn’t something that can legitimately sustain my interest for too long.
So, as we bounce from machination to machination, I’m looking for Royal Pains to really find its footing outside of its weekly medical stories, which quite strangely for a procedural have kind of been its strong point to this point in its first season – while I’m pleased the show has received a second season, I’m less pleased with the fact that it could mean two seasons of this less than wonderful relationship.
“No Man is an Island”
July 9th, 2009
Due to some thesis commitments, I’ve actually found myself doing something really strange: not only have I had no time to blog about television, but I’ve even found myself falling behind on watching it. Sure, I’ve gone through three seasons of Top Chef is about nine days, but watching new television just hasn’t been part of the game plan, which meant I just watched 10 Things I Hate About You, haven’t gotten to Warehouse 13, and was a day late getting to this week’s episodes of Burn Notice and Royal Pains.
And trust me, I’m as shocked as you are that the one show that shakes me out of my hiatus is Royal Pains, a show that two weeks earlier (before the show took a break for the holiday) had convinced me it was willing to settle for light and charming as opposed to something more substantial. However, “No Man is an Island” shocked me by emerging as a really compelling piece of television which did a lot of small things to bring to the surface intriguing characters dynamics, medical scenarios which start as one thing and evolve as medicine often can, plus a very Burn Notice/MacGyver piece of medicine from Dr. Hank.
It was the kind of episode that legitimately makes me think that these characters could eventually become their own less interesting but nonetheless entertaining versions of Michael, Sam and Fiona, a scenario I wouldn’t have predicted when the show started and that makes me more intrigued to see where the show goes from here.
“TB or Not TB”
June 25th, 2009
That’s really not the question, Royal Pains.
This won’t be a particularly long review, but I do want to make note that the show is on better footing now that it’s back in chronological order, although it’s still a little bit all over the place with some of its developments. While the show has never seemed to aspire to much beyond its premise, it’s heading into a couple of directions both serialized and procedural that could prove interesting, but won’t quite commit to them enough to make them really stand out.
In the end, though, this one feels like it’s answering some more pressing questions about the show’s format than just the titular Shakespearean medical concern.
June 25th, 2009
While a strong second season and great episodes like “End Run” last week have created raised expectations for Burn Notice, the show remains a formulaic procedural at some level. The show is not formulaic in a negative way, necessarily, but it has its patterns and uses them to varying degrees of effectiveness. As it happens, the past season or so has been particularly strong, but the show is by no means blowing our collective mind week in and week out. So, when I say that “Fearless Leader” was a pretty typical episode of Burn Notice, this is to say both that it was enjoyable but also that it did nothing to really make me stand up and take notice.
The problem, however, is that to some degree it should have been one of those episodes, at least the way it was situated within the season-opening storyline with Moon Bloodgood’s Detective Paxson. Presented as a new obstacle for Michael now that law enforcement is no longer being kept off his back by the people who burned him, the police interest in him has seemed a legitimate threat even if there have been times where Bloodgood popping up at the beginning and end of each episode has felt shallow. It left me waiting for the episode where Michael’s mission would intersect directly with our newly arrived detective, thinking that would justify her presence as more than just a symbolic sign of Michael’s newly precarious position.
It’s ultimately this expectation, not some notion of every episode being like “End Run,” that makes me disappointed in this one, as Paxson remained a pretty uninteresting character and, more importantly, the story that ends up closing this chapter in the show’s run was not particularly connected to her or elevated in any way by her presence. The result is that it makes the show seem lazier and simpler than it really is, and it makes an otherwise solid episode into a bit of a letdown: as Michael says, you always need to have a plan, and it seems like the show’s plan was a little shortsighted.
June 18th, 2009
It seems like every time I’m writing about Burn Notice, like in a quick catchup piece I put together ahead of the season premiere for Geeks of Doom, I’m talking about the progression of the show from its first season to where it stands today. Watching “End Run,” it’s clear that the writers are a fan of evoking this particular discourse, for this episode presents itself as a high stakes, no holds barred, greatest hits of what the first season used to do on a small scale, and what now feels more suspenseful, more entertaining, and simply more effective.
By bringing absent Nate (Michael’s brother) back into the picture, the show reminds us that there was a time when “annoyingly ignorant family members” was actually a trope that the show was relying on for some of its drama. Now, meanwhile, the show finds drama from a no hold barred arms dealer holding Michael hostage in order to utilize his skillset for an upcoming job, and from a police threat that shows no signs of going away anytime soon. There was a time when Michael was fighting against the people around him, whether it was Sam reporting to the FBI or his mother knowing nothing about his job and annoying him, but now everyone is banding together in an effort to assist Michael in keeping his friends and family safe, and staying out of jail in the process.
For now, the result is an episode that simultaneously contributes to ongoing storylines, connects with numerous satellites within the show’s universe, and gives us perhaps the best showcase yet for Michael’s unique skillset, all without feeling the least bit contrived or put together.
“There Will Be Food”
June 11th, 2009
Ah, the ol’ sophomore check-in. Entering its second week, I still wasn’t entirely on board with Royal Pains, as its pilot was clumsily competent in a way that seemed as if it would set up an interesting show but didn’t yet give an indication (outside of our ability to extrapolate from its setup) of how that show might operate.
It’s really a question of pacing more than anything else, along with how it will handle its recurring elements intermingled with new “cases.” The tension from Hank’s life is pretty much gone at this point; he has a place to live and a job to do, and that lack of stress allows him to sort of float along both noble and romantic paths in “There Will Be Food,” an episode certainly devoid of any blood or any serious ailments. This isn’t surprising, as this is a procedural series without murders or anything of that nature, but there will be a point when the “Robin Hood” of the Hampton’s is going to have to face something legitimately threatening.
Overall, though, it was a solid second outing. I have some concerns over the use of romance, but considering how much I prefer it to some of the show’s other options I’m ultimately content, if not wholly satisfied, with the show’s direction.
“Question and Answer”
June 11th, 2009
Moving into its second episode of the season, Burn Notice is no longer a show that needs to prove itself – the second season did more than enough to convince me that the show understand that works and what doesn’t, so the introduction of a new antagonist for Michael Westen isn’t something that raises any sort of alarm bells.
This isn’t the case with all shows, of course. House, in particular, is a show that insists on introducing short term rivals for its lead character, only to have them absolutely take over the show to the point of both distraction and devolution. I don’t think I can quite explain why Burn Notice does this so much better, but it’s an impressive feat: while House slows to a crawl during those sections, Burn Notice manages to pull off both tension and humour with the arrival of Moon Bloodgood’s Detective Paxson, someone who has drawn a line from Michael’s arrival in Miami with a sharp increase in explosions and the like.
(And based on the twitter responses, including one from Alan Sepinwall who discusses Bloodgood’s arrival in his own review, the humour might be a major part of how these characters work, as they fit into Michael’s world of calculated yet quippy and therefore don’t seem as contrived).
As a result, “Question and Answer” doesn’t let this new arrival slow things down, as the thing that works so well about Burn Notice is that not every episode needs to be about explosions, and that there are more than enough tricks up their sleeve to keep the show one of the most entertaining on television.