Royal Pains debuts tonight at 9 p.m. CDT on the USA Network.
Royal Pains, at first, seems like it might be a fun summer time waster, a goofy riff on the small-town doctor drama, not seen on TV in quite some time. Plus, it follows the generally fun Burn Notice, another show that takes a bunch of elements you’ve seen in other shows and combines them into something worth watching every week. But there’s something in Royal Pains that feels obligatory, and that keeps the show from feeling like a must-watch or even, really, a maybe-watch.
There’s nothing in Royal Pains that you haven’t seen before. This, in and of itself, isn’t a deal breaker, but everything about the show – right down to the establishing shots that lead off each act and the sluggish pacing – feels lazy, as though the show has no ambition to do the millions and millions of shows that have done every element here one better. Hell, even the music cues in the pilot feel tired and obligatory. They’re all exactly the sorts of songs you’ve heard in exactly these sorts of situations in, again, dozens of other pilots. Our protagonist is facing a professional crisis but wants to keep his head up? Cue Cake’s “Sheep Go to Heaven; Goats Go to Hell.” Etc.
The central problem here is that, in keeping with the USA Network’s “brand,” our central character is supposed to be a new, invigorating twist on an old type – in this case, the Doctor Who Cares Too Much. You can see how the show tries to tweak this formula just a bit. Lead Hank Lawson starts out as a cocky, somewhat maladjusted New York City doctor who’s a cheeky bastard to just about everyone he meets, but after a professional mishap and some unfortunate exposition (wherein a medical board tells us things everyone on it surely already knows), he is out of work and finding it hard to care. The bills are piling up! His fiancée is leaving him! Wherever shall he turn?
Enter the obligatory road trip, as our hero’s brother drags him to the Hamptons, where both men crash a party for the rich and famous, the brother pretending to be nobility. Naturally, someone falls ill at the party, Hank has to perform a last-second life-saving procedure, and the owner of the house where the party is being held offers him a position on staff as a summer doctor type thing. From there, we’re heading through a weirdly episodic series of vignettes designed to get the entire cast that will surround Hank together, show off his medical prowess and provide us with the fish-out-of-water elements that will surely drive many a plot to come.
There’s stuff here that kind of works – Hank’s encounter with two teenagers who have been in a car accident is pretty good, thanks to the performances of Ezra Miller and Meredith Hagner as the teens – but the majority of the show meanders all over the place. Some of this may function from the fact that the cut I watched was just over an hour and five minutes long (though since the show is running in an hour and fifteen minutes slot tonight, that may mean most of this made the cut), thus leading everything to feel more padded than it should, but I’m willing to bet there’s not a strong template at the center of this show beyond “big city doctor encounters insanely rich small town yokels while dealing with personal problems and medical dilemmas.” That’s not a bad template, but it’s also not specific enough to differentiate the show.
Every pilot for every show has as its main goal the ideal to set out the basic template for what we’re going to watch from week to week. The hope is that most of the elements of the template are there in the pilot itself – think of how the flashbacks are already present in the Lost pilot or how The Sopranos pilot cuts freely between Tony’s home, work and therapy lives. Naturally, there are times when the pilot can’t quite lay out exactly what the show is going to be. A lot of the time, those shows are what we call premise pilots (pilots where we find out exactly how everything we see came to be this way).
Royal Pains shares DNA with these premise pilots, and I’m not entirely sure it has to. The backstory of why Hank is in the Hamptons and working at a job he doesn’t much like is pretty much boilerplate and unnecessary. Because we end up seeing all of it, the pilot ends up feeling like about five different series smashed together into one, a feeling it can never quite overcome.
Every time the series feels like it’s about to settle down into something recognizable as a television show, it veers off in a new direction. Granted, unpredictability can be fine, but the unpredictability here is so predictable that while you may not know precisely what’s going to happen next, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it will resemble. Hank will meet a new quirky townsperson and he’ll be forced to deal with their medical trauma, and in the process, he’ll have to confront his own malaise or woo the local hospital administrator or something similar. To a degree, this feels like a script that maybe started as a movie before its creators realized it could be changed into an ongoing television series, then never bothered to do the hard work needed to send it from one medium to the other.
Then again, all of this could work with a more compelling lead at the show’s center, and Mark Feuerstein just can’t play enough of the varied notes of Hank to make him a compelling dramatic character. Paolo Costanzo and Campbell Scott are more interesting as Hank’s brother and the rich dude who gives him work, respectively, but the character at the center, as played by Feuerstein is so much of a good-looking cipher that much of the pilot is spent wondering why he’s the lead in the first place.
I realize I’ve made Royal Pains sound like the worst show in the history of television, but it’s really not. It’s just the sort of thing it’s easy to build up a good, calloused indifference to. Lazy and lugubriously paced, Royal Pains is pretty much just after Burn Notice because USA needed something to put there. Put another way, if you liked Gilmore Girls and you like House, but you’d rather everything that made those two shows was stripped away in favor of their blandest elements, then you might like Royal Pains.
- OK, one point in Royal Pains' favor: The look of the show is really quite handsome. Sure, those establishing shots get a little tiresome, but setting the show in the Hamptons (and, seemingly, filming there) has given the series a look that's not quite like anything else on USA. The extra expenditure for location filming was worth it here.