Extreme Social Climbing: An Advance Review of USA’s ‘Royal Pains’

Jun 3, 2009

I’ll admit that I was a bit wary of USA’s new summer series, Royal Pains, prior to watching the 90-minute pilot episode.
After all, Royal Pains‘ cutesy title, oddball casting, and fluffy subject matter could have made this either an unwatchable hot mess or a winning summer series that’s equal parts dry wit, flashy environs, and winsomely quirky characters.
Fortunately, having watched Royal Pains‘ first episode, which airs tomorrow night on USA, I am happy to say that it’s the latter. Royal Pains, which stars Mark Feuerstein (Defiance, 3 Lbs.) as disgraced doctor Hank Lawson, is exactly the sort of thing you want to be watching on those long, hot summer nights. It’s the television equivalent of snacking on a Popsicle: cool, sweet, and relatively fat-free.


Royal Pains, written by Andrew Lenchewski (UC: Undercover) and directed by Jace Alexander (Burn Notice), tells the story of promising Manhattan ER doctor Hank Lawson (Feuerstein) who, after opting to save the life of a young kid while a vital hospital patron lay dying, is booted out of the hospital… and his relationship with his bitchy fiancee. With nowhere to go and money quickly disappearing from his bank account (thanks to said fiancee and lawyer fees stemming from malpractice), Hank drifts inside himself and becomes little more than a sad sack has-been sitting in his own filth and watching an endless loop of trashy daytime television and 80s flicks.
Enter Hank’s younger brother Evan (Joey‘s Paulo Constanzo) who can’t bear to see his brother throw his life away. He convinces Hank to join him in the Hamptons for the weekend and mingle with the beautiful people at a decadent party thrown by an elusive and eccentric billionaire named Boris (played with aplomb by the one and only Campbell Scott), where he promises ice flown in from Antarctica, supermodels mud wrestling, and sushi rolls made with diamonds. (One of my favorite lines in the pilot involves Evan promising a “diamond fight” among guests; the other is a rip at “fractional ownership.”)
It’s an orgiastic event where–depending on your point of view–everything goes horribly wrong… or goes right for the first time for Hank in months. At the party, Hank is called upon to save the life of a woman who appears to have overdosed on some recreational drugs. Or so the callous concierge doctor would seem to believe, until Hank steps in and correctly diagnoses the damsel in distress, realizing that she’s having a fatal reaction to pesticides on some flowers she sniffed in Boris’ rose garden. Hank saves the day… and word quickly spreads like wildfire through the well-heeled hamlet that Hank is the new go-to concierge doctor in town.
It’s a situation that Hank is more than reluctant to finesse, despite social-climbing CPA Evan’s protestations that this is their ticket to the high-society and out of the run-down beach motel where they’re currently staying. Rich people in the Hamptons do not use the local hospital (it’s there for the bridge and tunnel crowd that comes in for the weekend and the service-industry locals) and they want someone available 24 hours a day for all of their medical needs: a concierge doctor at their beck and call.
It’s an arrangement that also works well for adorable, whip-smart Hampton Heritage Hospital administrator Jill Casey (Gossip Girl‘s Jill Flint) who would rather treat patients seeking actual emergency medical care than raving lunatics who would seek to jump the patient queue when one of their breast implants leaks. (Which is exactly what happens, I might add, to Christine Ebersole’s society dame Mrs. Newberg in the pilot episode.) Jill can allow the hospital to prioritize its patients while Hank can make house calls. They both win.
Everyone seem to be conspiring in one way or another to keep Hank captive in the Hamptons. Besides for the obvious spark between him and Jill, there’s the hefty gold bar that Boris gives to Hank as payment for his assistance at his party (and the offer of his estate’s guest house), the attentions of said damsel in distress (in the throes of Nightingale Syndrome), and the arrival of well-prepared physician’s assistant Divya (Reshma Shetty), an ambitious PA who has an SUV overflowing with pricey medical equipment and the need to prove herself.
The solution seems obvious, despite Hank’s bizarre (and at times illogical) refusal to take over the mantle of concierge doctor to the Hamptons’ elite. In the pilot episode alone, he tackles a number of medical cases but none quite so dire as that of hemophiliac rich kid Tucker (Californication’s Ezra Miller), who crashes his dad’s pricey Ferrari and then tries to conceal from Hank the extent of his injuries.
It’s a rare medical series that can deftly balance romantic comedy, buddy comedy, and actual medical emergency yet Royal Pains does so with a flair that’s helped by the delightful casting of the zany Costanzo as Hank’s brother Evan. In the hands of a lesser actor, Evan could have been a one-note walking punchline but Constanzo imbues him with a hell of a lot of heart, even as he attempts to deceive nearly everyone he comes in contact with and walks away with nearly every scene in the process. He’s the consummate hanger-on, a beggar at the feast whom you want to love despite his many flaws.
The rest of Royal Pains‘ cast is equally nimble. Virtual unknown Shetty is a real find as the uber-ambitious Divya, all slick angles and posh Anglo-Indian accent. And Flint wows from the moment she appears on-screen, offering Hank not only a love interest but a grounded voice of intelligence and reason in a world that’s built around wealth and excess. (I’m also hoping that Miller’s Tucker sticks around for a bit in the series.)
In fact, my only real disappointment is with Feuerstein himself, who doesn’t quite manage to charm the way he should as Hank Lawson. Yes, Hank is meant to be a stiff outsider who is ill at ease with the trappings of wealth being thrust at him but Feuerstein himself seems to bristle, lacking the charisma and charm necessary to pull off this role. The strength of the supporting case manages to uphold the energy and zing of Royal Pains‘ pilot but I couldn’t help thinking the entire time that there were far more magnetic actors who could have given Hank more energy and verve.
Likewise, Alexander’s direction of the pilot goes for the obvious rather than attempting to push the envelope in terms of visuals. Many of the shots are predictable and staid and don’t service the flair and beauty of the location. (Though, I’ll admit that I do love that swooping fast-motion overhead shot of the beach manses.) Additionally, some of the wittiness of the script’s banter gets lost from time to time, with well-turned dialogue getting buried amid some poor direction.
Still, these are minor quibbles when presented with a finished product that offers escapist fun and infuses the medical drama with a hefty dose of comedy. Royal Pains is a guilty pleasure that you don’t really have to feel all that guilty about enjoying. Rather than offer you some empty calories, there is some real pleasure here, thanks to the revolving door of talented guest stars, the rich supporting cast, and the mirth of the social calendar in the Hamptons.
Diagnosis: Royal Pains might not be the most inventive or original series ever to hit the small screen but it has an engaging energy and a winning group of quirky characters that make it a fun and frothy summertime treat. Well worth checking out, even if you can only afford to stay in the Hamptons for the weekend.


Royal Pains premieres June 4th at 10 pm ET/PT on USA.



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