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.
What works about the episode is when it pretends it isn’t a finale: I thought the case itself was interesting in its connection with Evan and Hank’s sibling relationship, something that I do think the show should use to its advantage. The introduction of Wicca was a bit strange (not that Wicca is strange, per se, but that it didn’t seem particularly subtlely implemented), and the resolution a bit too simple in its connection to both the patient’s fear of traditional medicine and her sister’s doting ways smothering her by mistake, but I think that it was a decent, solid episode of procedural television.
But when placed as a finale, a lot of the episode seemed too contrived by half, in particular between Evan and Hank. It isn’t that the relationship is a bad thing to investigate, but the actual result was predictable by about the halfway point in the episode: the patient bringing to life the story of Evan and Hank’s father’s abandonment made him the easy choice for the identity of the mysterious schemer, taking all suspense out of the episode and making it seem like a pointless march to an inevitable conclusion that doesn’t feel particularly natural.
I’d feel better about the storyline if I wasn’t so skeptical about Evan in general – I don’t think it’s Costanza’s fault, but there is just something about Evan that I don’t particularly like. I think that making him somewhat more mature is a fine move, but he’s so far into caricature at some moments that I have no sense he will actually change. Even in this episode, he was equating Wicca with Hinduism, which is the kind of insensitive and ignorant jackassery that makes me care very little for the character. Combine with the fact that Hank and Evan are living rent-free with Boris, making their financial problems not particularly dire (at least as far as we can tell), and it created a disconnect where this huge season-ending storyline felt, well, uneventful.
That goes for the entire finale: outside of Divya, whose fate is more interesting and here mostly swept under the rug to deal with later as she only imagines breaking off the engagement, everything was treated like a grand conclusion but didn’t deliver. I barely care about Jill, so you can imagine my opinion of her having so much time alone with boring Charlie, and the rather sudden creation of a love square when the patient factors into things. For me, those elements of the show have felt the most hackneyed, so the focus seems quite misplaced.
If I can play couch showrunner for a second, the show lives and dies by its setting: whether it’s Boris’ mysterious opulence, or the struggles of local people to deal with the disparity between the upper and lower classes, the Hamptons give the series both its interest and that laidback feeling which makes it ideal summer viewing. For both of those elements to be essentially absent from the finale feels like a mistake, as this was an ideal time to bring back Tucker and Libby, or Christine Ebersole, or really anyone who we’ve seen before and who could help populate this universe. And while last week’s episode did deal with Boris, for that mystery to be entirely underwritten in favour of Evan and Hank’s father is not so much a terrible mistake as it is, by my eyes, a missed opportunity.
Really, it goes back to the pilot: there, we saw a doctor struggling to come to terms with his firing and a set of brothers with Daddy issues who needed to reconnect. If last week was about dealing with the former, then this week was about the latter, but for me that’s too simple and I’d rather they have dealt with the Daddy issues last week and allowed the show to focus more on its future than its past in the finale. Yes, I know that this is all going to mean nothing when the show finds a way to get its way back to its normal setup in just a few episodes in its second season. And the show was really successful, so clearly it’s not hurting too badly. However, this is a show with some interesting elements and that offers a fun summer distraction, and I’d like to see them optimize those elements for next summer to see if this show, like Burn Notice, can find a new gear in its second season.
I’m not holding my breath, but I’ll cross my fingers anyways.
- Alice in Wonderland syndrome seems like something that was largely chosen for the purpose of the visual effects, which were all over the place in this episode (the distortion, the light, and of course the attack of the light fixture). Those were fine, but I’d have liked to see the episode deal a bit more with the Wonderland theme – clearly, I’ve been watching too much Mad Men where allusions actually mean something.
- Although, thinking about it, we could count Divya’s imaginary breaking off from the engagement as a Looking Glass-esque reflection of reality?
- The greeting card scene between Hank and Jill should be used as a sign that their relationship is a fundamentally bad idea. There’s just no chemistry between them, and while the show has never been particularly subtle the “It feels the most like you” line from Hank about the greeting card was perhaps the clunkiest and least effective bit of interpersonal connecting I’ve seen on television in quite some time.
- No firm plans for the show’s return, but logic would indicate the show would return next summer – it doesn’t feel like a Winter show, although its ratings should certainly give USA Network pause and make them consider a more substantial order.