June 4th, 2009
You know, pilots are kind of a pain.
They’re a necessary evil: they exist in order to give us an understanding of how a show is going to work, which is an important thing to sell a network and potential viewers on before they commit to ordering, or watching, more episodes. But the result is often that a lot of character and plot development that should be given time to unfold naturally is checked off at a blistering pace. It’s possible to make a great pilot, but those people are both few and far between and definitely not working behind the scenes at USA Network’s Royal Pains.
As a critic, it’s hard to really confront a pilot as obnoxiously contrived as this one, because you run into a problem: considering that it’s our role to judge a show based on its potential, and considering that the contrivances are more pilot shorthand than inherent to the show’s formula, you can’t spend too much time complaining about something that is par for the course. And while Burn Notice has given us some fairly high expectations about what a USA Network “procedural” is capable of being, this show does not appear to have similar aspirations, and it’s not really fair to judge it as if it does.
So taking into account its contrivances, and its ham-fisted parallels, and its tendency to rush its way through storylines that should probably be given a bit more time, Royal Pains managed to do enough to convince me that as a piece of escapist summer entertainment the show might not be such a pain after all.
The procedural setup of the show is of a concierge doctor working in the Hamptons, the show’s title referring to the local elite (the royalty) as well as both their real maladies and their annoyance of others (the pains). It’s not a bad idea for a television show, really, considering that it allows for some solid comedy, the occasional drama, and the concern that a normal doctor operating in this rich environment will begin to lose sight of their moral compass and the like. There’s a point late in the pilot where the show recognizes this, as Dr. Hank Lawson asks whether or not a doctor is defined by their patients. The question was kind of stupid in context of the pilot and that conversation, but it has some benefits as an overall vision and question for the series to answer.
Ultimately, the pilot wasn’t about showing much of that potential, but finding a way to take a doctor working at a high profile Emergency Room and put him into a situation where he would be both willing to take and in a position to take such an opportunity. The first involves an all-too rapid descension after bad luck results in a hospital trustee dying on his watch and the loss of his job, his fiance, and all of his money. Yes, the montage of drinking, pizza-eating and becoming emotional during Field of Dreams as a decent way to pass the time, but it was all far too fast, and relied too heavily on his wife being a shrill and, more importantly, no due dilligence done on his behalf by anyone. It just all went as bad as you could possibly imagine, and that’s the problem when it feels like it goes that bit too far for the sake of pushing him further than logical.
A vacation to the Hamptons with his brother is similarly rushed: his brother happens to have a way into a party, where a girl happens to experience symptoms that the existing concierge doctor mistakes for a drug overdose, and where his cell phone number and his identity proceed to spread amongst rich people thanks to an overzealous party thrower with a newly open guest house and gold bars to throw around. Throw in a hemopheliac teenager with daddy issues and a floosie with a deflated and black market saline implant, plus a sexy hospital administrator, a willing assistant with a truck full of medical equipment, and a healthy dose of moralizing, and you have a scenario whereby HankMed is a reality.
Where they eventually get is somewhere I’m willing to follow them: the dynamic between Hank and his brother is an enormous cliche but one that I’m capable of sticking with unless it becomes too dominant, I think Divya is a good way to break some of the tension between them, and the sexy administrator’s analysis of concierge doctors (that they keep the most difficult patients out of the way of those who have more urgent needs and are far less annoying) actually seemed like a legitimate reason for Hank to remain in the Hamptons beyond his short visit. The show just didn’t know when to quit in many instances: they didn’t need to have Jill, the administrator/love interest in question, express verbatim the exact thing that he wanted his ex-fiance to say after the incident at his former job. Those kind of parallels are just too cute, too simple in an effort to rush from “hey, these two people seem to have some chemistry and a common purpose” to “OMG LOVE INTEREST ALERT.” And yes, I’m being facetious.
But what saves the show is that Mark Feuerstein really is a solid lead for the show, as his interactions with the various patients offered some fun back and forth. He’s likeable enough for his time spent with Tucker to believably become a friendship of sorts (the ability to populate this world with recurring characters is key to the show’s future success), but at the same time out of sorts enough to believe that he’s going to have to push some of his preconceptions and the like out the window. The rest of the cast is solid if unspectacular, pretty well par for the course when it comes to USA Network series, and the Hamptons setting offers quite similar opportunities for cinematography and eye candy that Burn Notice offers.
The show, however, can’t live up to Burn Notice: while Weston’s situation was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off and elevate the series to another level, by comparison Hank’s past is far less volatile. Yes, they were both blacklisted, but in this instance Hank’s life isn’t in danger, and there isn’t nearly the threat level involved. It’s why the show will never really have anywhere to evolve to, nor does it really have to: if it can continue to create a balance of comic and dramatic scenarios involving medicine, which how many various medical procedurals have managed to do, then it can easily represent a carefree, breezy new setting for those cliches.
And considering there isn’t much else new this summer (although I’ll have some thoughts on Nurse Jackie on Monday), I figure it’s certainly worth sticking with for now.
- Honestly, what hemophiliac doesn’t tell a doctor he’s a hemophiliac? I know Tucker wasn’t the brightest tool in the shed, but it really distracted me: I actually thought that whole sequence was really well paced and well-written, but that little bit really didn’t make any sense, teenager or no teenager.
- Divya, the Physician’s assistant, was far and away the biggest contrivance in the pilot: as far as one can tell, she’s a rich heiress of some kind who wants to practice medicine but has some sort of obligation to her polo-playing family. So, she bought all of this equipment in an effort to find a doctor in the area to take her on and allow her to gain practice and experience close to home. Her dynamic with the brothers is solid, though, so I’ll let it slide as long as she pulls her weight.
- I really recognized Paulo Costanzo, who plays brother Evan, but the only thing I could have seen him in was Josie and the Pussycats, and I really don’t think my recollection would be nearly that strong for that particular film.