Necessary Roughness

Necessary Roughness debuts tonight on USA at 10 p.m. Eastern.

There’s a kind of TV setup I’ve grown to reflexively dislike. (Dan Fienberg has entitled it a “Vocational Irony Narrative,” which is as good a name for it as anything.) The basic idea is that the person at the center of the show is an expert at their profession. But whatever it is they do—it usually involves having to fix or build something—they can’t do the same in their own life. The biggest recent example is probably House, where Dr. House is a genius at fixing other people, but he can’t fix himself and drives people away. We’re supposed to shake our heads at how the great genius is also terrible at dealing with other people, largely by his own design. 

And there’s nothing wrong with this, honestly! Back in the day, House was a very good show, and there have been plenty of other good examples of the form that worked as TV shows. (I hope you’ll take this as an invitation to list your own favorites.) But the trope has become so worn out that most shows feel like they don’t have to do the busy work of establishing all of its elements. They figure the familiar shorthand of TV will lead you to make the conclusions they need you to make, and they don’t need to show their work. And in a lot of cases, that’s probably true. If you were going to make a show about a brilliant contractor who, nonetheless, couldn’t build a stable personal life at home, we probably wouldn’t need to see how great he was at his job. We know this trope so well we can feel it in our bones.

All of this brings us to Necessary Roughness, which is a show I like on a lot of levels but is also a show that is based almost completely on something of a lie. In it, we’re meant to believe that therapist Dani (Callie Thorne) is a great, great therapist who can’t deal with the personal problems of her own life. (These problems include but are not limited to a cheating husband and a delinquent daughter.) But everything we see of Dani’s therapy makes her out to be not just a bad therapist but kind of a terrible person—cheating on time in a therapy session to make time with a higher-paying client, using easy bullshit answers and lines to try and help a guy dealing with some real pain, and just generally talking like a therapist who’s learned everything she knows about therapy from watching TV. She is such a bad therapist that it calls the central idea of the show—she is the only one who can fix this football team, but she can’t fix her own life—into question. She mostly seems like a hack who’s stumbled into the greatest gig of her career. The writers are using our knowledge of this trope to trick us into reading more depth into the character than is actually there. It just doesn't work.

But like I mentioned, there’s a lot of fun stuff to appreciate here. Like most USA pilots, this episode is overstuffed, but it keeps most of the background stuff confined to the first 20 minutes or so (which leads one to wonder just why this needed the premise pilot background and couldn’t just start with Dani already in the process of getting a divorce, already scrambling for money, etc.). Around that point, Dani sleeps with a trainer for the New York Hawks football team (a trainer played by Marc Blucas, feeling like yet another milquetoast new boyfriend after Thorne spent most of her previous series sparring with Denis Leary), and he discovers that she could be just the thing to help their troubled wide receiver—Terrence King (Mehcad Brooks)—stop dropping passes. (The series seems more interested in sports mythology than actual sports; if it were a sports columnist, it would have written 50 columns about the scrappiness of David Eckstein by now, with apologies to the fine fellows at Fire Joe Morgan.) Can she help King? Can the team trust her? Can this woman find her way in the world of pro sports?

And here’s the thing: The pro football setting here is competently done. It’s certainly not terribly realistic, but as an attempt to make a workplace drama about a pro football team, it certainly could have been much, much worse. In particular, the mysterious “security guy” played by Scott Cohen could have been a great focus for this series, as he wandered the Earth, doing whatever it took to keep the team on track and keep distractions from taking out the players. And the other characters associated with the team are similarly well-cast and well-written, giving the sense that this was, at one time, a football show, then someone got the idea of introducing a therapist, and creators Liz Kruger and Craig Shapiro chased that whole idea down the rabbit hole.

As good as the actors are here—and Thorne and Cohen, in particular, are terrific—and as compelling as some of the central scenarios are, the show has another big problem, despite the fact that it’s based on a lie. Basically, the show feels like a movie that’s been awkwardly turned into a TV pilot, with some tossed-in moments here and there to point the way forward for where the series will go. Nearly every conflict the pilot comes up with is handily resolved in the course of the hour, and that wouldn’t be such a big deal if this were a cop show. We know what to expect next week on a cop show. But this is a drama about a therapist who works with football players. So far as I know, this is the first of its kind. There’s little to no roadmap going forward, and while that can sometimes be exciting, on a series built of as many staid elements as this one is, it’s also a little terrifying. Pilots that feel more like movies have become common in recent years, as more features writers move into television production, and it’s very rare to have a movie-esque pilot be followed up by a series that captures any of the spirit of the pilot. It’d be one thing if the family stuff were complex and nuanced, but that’s also straight out of the cliché root cellar, with troubled daughters and sons who like to play video games too much and a feisty grandma who reads the sports pages.

But for as much as I like elements of the show—the performances and the football setting, mostly—I can’t quite recommend it, simply because that lie at the show’s center is so damning. Thorne plays the hell out of this character, but we’re never given those moments when we see just how good she is at her job in terms of helping people move past their emotional issues and heal their broken pasts. The most significant actions she undertakes to fix King aren’t even really driven by her, and she seems to treat her other patients (who are mostly played for laughs, weirdly) with a weird sort of contempt. If you’re looking for other Vocational Irony Narratives, you’ll bump right up against In Treatment, another show about a shrink who could help other people but couldn’t help himself. But at the end of the day, you saw that doctor helping people get down to the roots of their issues. Here, you mostly just see Dani futzing around and being silly as cutesy music plays. Compared to the other show, it doesn’t just come up lacking; it also seems kind of sad.