June 3rd, 2010
If you’re looking for thoughts on the more entertaining of last night’s USA Network premieres, then you’ll want to check out Alan Sepinwall’s review of the fourth season and Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the premiere at The A.V. Club. Ultimately, I’m about in line with Todd on the show: while I still enjoy it, and thought the premiere did some interesting things, I’m finding that I am far less engaged in the series than I once was. While before its scheduling in the summer months seemed like a welcome bit of intellectually-aligned fun, now it just feels like we’re, you know, burnt out on Burn Notice.
But since those gentlemen put such a nice button on the Burn Notice premiere, I wanted to turn my attention to that which came afterwards. If Michael Westen had tied me to a chair and interrogated me for two days, I honestly don’t know if he could have been able to get me to remember what happened at the end of Royal Pains’ first season last summer. I remembered the basic premise of the show, as well as the basic character interactions central to the series, but in terms of an actual plot the closest I could come is “Campbell Scott’s eccentric billionaire has a weird illness that he pulled a Jason Street to try to fix,” which doesn’t exactly constitute a lasting impression considering I relate to it largely through an obscure Friday Night Lights reference.
“Spasticity” is a fine example of both why I plan to keep watching the show and why, in a few months time, I’ll likely forget about everything I watched this summer. While the show has a way of passing the time in a way which I quite admire, it is not what one would call entertaining: there is nothing here to please crowds beyond a compelling guest turn from Kyle Bornheimer and residual love for Arrested Development having fundamentally changed our perception of Henry Winkler, the rest of the series comfortable to sit in a functional but lifeless holding pattern that honestly serves it quite well.
In some ways, I have a certain respect for the show not trying to push itself to be more explicitly engaging, retaining its understated even when it occasionally results in storylines which what one would generally consider “unmemorable.”
“Spasticity” is on-the-nose procedural storytelling at its most direct: the case of the week has Bornheimer (who I quite like) inheriting his father’s home and finding himself battling his father’s demons, which just so happens to be what Hank and Evan are doing in the wake of last year’s cliffhanger (which, as I discovered, involved Evan being swindled by the elder Lawson and nearly bankrupting HankMed). Meanwhile, Divya’s struggles with an arranged marriage are boiled down to “family vs. personal interest” in order to hammer the theme home, and you could even throw in Boris’ quest to overcome his family history in there if you so wish.
A lot of procedurals use this sort of structure in order to hammer home serialized character arcs within their traditional structures, but the problem with Royal Pains is that its characters aren’t particularly dynamic in the context of the structures. I find Hank as a brother and son to be mildly compelling, but his calm demeanor as a doctor is never really what one would call electric. He’s very good at what he does, and there are episodes where his MacGyver-esque solutions to situations really catch my attention (like when he was stranded without resources on an island), but here there was neither grit nor elegance in the way this story was told. Hank is well suited to save this guy’s life, but I don’t know if he’s particularly well-suited for the saving of that life to be as entertaining as it could be if the same scenario were to play out on a show willing to be more dynamic on a regular basis.
A fine example of this is Jill’s storyline this season, which is hurt by two different factors. The first is that Jill Flint spent some time on a much more compelling show, The Good Wife, this season, which means that seeing her return to a pretty mundane hospital administration plot is a bit disheartening. The second is that Marcia Gay Harden is much better than this storyline, here forced into the same sort of uptight hospital authority role that kept Anna Deavere Smith in such an unfortunate place on Nurse Jackie and which Sons of Anarchy turned into an opportunity for kickass character development in its second season. It isn’t that she’s bad in the role, or that the storyline has absolutely no value (as Jill faces a situation not dissimilar from the one that got Hank in this position in the first place), but rather that it isn’t the least bit dynamic. When she walks out of that meeting, there’s no gravity to her decision, and I’m still not sure if she was fired at the end of the episode or what precisely happened.
And yet, there are situations where this subtle, inoffensive approach plays well for the series. There’s a sparseness to Boris’ character which maintains a certain degree of mystery, and his quest for a cure remains mildly compelling (and was the most well-designed piece of the premiere, finding an excuse for the story to continue even when Campbell Scott won’t be around on a regular basis). And the relationship between Hank and Evan remains stronger than I would have anticipated at the start of the series, and there’s a nice Evan and Divya scene here as well. When the show stops trying to use its procedural structures and story arcs to build character I appreciate that it doesn’t go for theatrics, but there are times when you can’t help but wish that the journey to get to the concluding scene (as Winkler, as Eddie Lawson, arrives with a cheque and gets a fist in the face for his trouble) could have been a bit more engaging than it was.
As noted, I quite like Henry Winkler post-Arrested Development, and so his casting seems to be something close to inspired and has me interested to see where this is going to go. However, the show’s decision to jump into last year’s storylines as if we remember whether Hank went to Jill’s house, or whether Charlie was fired, feels like a misfire – there’s a sense that we’re supposed to understand these tangled webs, and in some ways I think the premiere would have worked better had we jumped forward in time a month or so and shown more long-term ramifications from Eddie’s departure, Jill’s administrative struggles, HankMed’s financial struggles, etc. Then the gap of knowledge would have been reflected within the story rather than simply within the audience, and the gravity of some of these decisions/reunions/arrivals could have been more effective.
But that’s not really the Royal Pains way: stories aren’t designed to keep us on the edge of our seats, they’re designed to have us sort of lean back and enjoy the shot for a bit. For the most part, this results in a series that coasts by on its structures and occasionally perks up into something more engaging, which isn’t a bad way to spend an hour in the sparse summer programming season. However, I do think that the show is going to have to get a bit more adventurous than this story in the future: the anvil-like metaphors and themes here felt like they were doing too much of the premiere lifting, and I’m hopeful the show can break out a bit more in future episodes and introduce at least a bit more procedural dynamism to the proceedings.
- All procedural shows like to bury little clues, but the way they got to the point of being able to use the inflatable MAST pants was a bit strained – I find it hard to believe that even a dungeon-like collection of old medical supplies would happen to have those on hand.
- We can presume that Divya’s marital situation will change at some point towards the end of the season, as the sixty day deadline feels like about how long the season would be intended to last within real time.
- Worst bit of dialogue in the premiere: Boris’ comment that Hank’s knowledge of the Cuban embargo indicates that he knows his history. If that is his barometer on someone’s knowledge of history, then I think Boris needs to raise his standards a bit.