Tuesday, June 2, 2009

TV Review Plus Q & A: USA Network's Royal Pains

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Last year USA Network added two new shows to its impressive roster of Monk, Psych and Burn Notice. In doing so, they launched Debra Messing’s The Starter Wife (which was spun-off from the channel’s Emmy Award winning miniseries of the same name) along with its New Mexico set Witness Protection Program action dramady In Plain Sight starring Mary McCormack as one unforgettable U.S. Marshal.

And furthering the #1 basic cable network’s commitment to delivering high quality entertainment that coincide with the channel’s promise of “characters welcome,” this summer USA introduces us to its newest endeavor via series creator Andrew Lenchewski’s Royal Pains.

The third medical program premiering this season following the end of USA’s parent company-- NBC Universal’s-- wildly successful drama E.R., yet the only one of the trio (including Showtime’s Nurse Jackie starring Edie Falco and TNT’s Hawthorne with Jada Pinkett Smith) that deals with a male MD protagonist and is primarily set outside the hospital, Royal Pains takes a rather unusual approach to the genre that’s glimpsed immediately when the pilot begins.

With basic cable’s top-rated show Burn Notice serving as its lead-in, Royal Pains debuts on Thursday, June 4 at 10/9 central with limited commercial interruption for its 75 minute premiere (essentially giving viewers 2 episodes for the price of one) on the network that’s available in 94 million American homes.

Chronicling the tale of talented, quick thinking, and altruistic E.R. doctor Hank Lawson (Mark Feuerstein) who loses his position after he’s blamed for the death of the hospital’s wealthiest benefactor. Bursting into the hospital on his day off with a patient in tow who’d collapsed near the doc on a basketball court—when Hank is ordered to leave the youth to take care of the wealthy patient, Hank stabilizes the latter and logically returns to the more perilous and urgent case in order to save the younger man’s life.

However, after a freak accident occurs and the other man ends up dead, Hank discovers he’s not only blacklisted from every hospital in the area and now the target of endless lawsuits but that his relationship with his superficial fiancĂ© has fallen apart as well when his lack of title fails to match her couture as the right “male” accessory.

Wallowing in self-pity; Hank is jolted out of his depression by his younger brother Evan (series scene-stealer Paulo Costanzo--gifted with the funniest off-the-wall lines) who persuades Hank to accompany him to the Hamptons for a weekend of Memorial Day parties. Reluctant to leave the house, when Evan reminds his brother that his Netflix account has been frozen and he’s out of booze, Hank travels along only to get much more than he bargained for when the long weekend turns into an indefinite move after an incident at a party finds Hank reminded of his Hippocratic oath to save a young woman from death.

Impressed by his ability to pull a MacGyver (one of the show’s most amusing plot techniques which is used at least four times in the pilot) by employing everyday objects as unexpected lifesaving devices, he catches the eye of the mysterious Hamptons resident Boris (Campbell Scott). When news that a hot new MD has arrived, Hank’s BlackBerry nearly blows out its battery in his first twenty-four hours of vacation as he makes the rounds catering to those in need.

With the Hamptons crowd mistaking Hank for a “concierge doctor,” a.k.a. the doctors on demand private physicians for hire that cater to the whims of the privileged and insanely rich—he’s endlessly urged along by his brother and CPA Evan along with Divya (Reshma Shetty) who shows up with the cute but aggressive goal to become his physician’s assistant.

Altruistic and good-natured—the sort of Frank Capra like dream doctor who puts patients before payments—initially Hank worries about the ethics involved regarding the payments (as Scott’s Boris for example gives him a gold brick). However, when he has the opportunity to save the life of a young, incredibly mature yet overly lonely and ignored hemophiliac teen and he’s charmed by the beauty of the Hamptons’ hospital administrator Jill (Jill Flint) who sees Hank as an ideal candidate to assist her in the fight against unequal medical care, he grudgingly concedes to stick around for awhile forming HankMed alongside Evan and Divya.

As the first official scripted original series from Universal Cable Productions for the USA Network, Royal Pains seems to make an ideal addition to the channel’s line-up of characters with strong moral and ethical compasses who find themselves fighting against the system whether it’s in the way that Michael and Fiona go places the cops won’t on Burn Notice or the guys on Psych help solve cases by noticing the little things-- Royal Pains shows a great deal of promise.

Visually breathtaking and the first episode is in fact helmed by a Burn Notice director that adds to the segue between the two shows with some long sweeping shots, inventive camera angles, and terrific editing that blends music and visuals in a rapid and exciting fashion, it’s also naturally heightened with the gorgeousness of the Hamptons location.

While initially I feared that it was going to be a simple tongue-in-cheek look of the trivialities of the Botox and Viagra set, I admire the way that at least in a subtextual form, the show hints about the class inequities of the setting as the rich can helicopter themselves to the best facilities in the world and the janitors and housekeepers who keep their lives running must settle for whatever is close.

Of course, to see how fully this plot is developed we’ll have to see the way the rest of the season’s run of thirteen total episodes plays out but based on my initial experience with the premiere, it looks as though all involved have their heart—as well as Hank’s—in exactly the right place.

Fortunately, some of the guess-work has been taken away as Film Intuition was graciously included in some conference call Q&As with producers Andrew Lenchweski and Michael Rauch as well as star Mark Feuerstein. Below you’ll find some of the highlights:

Q&A Coverage

On Casting

Re: Mark Feuerstein:

Lenchweski: We knew from the beginning we needed a guy who could bring the competency of a physician, so we could, see that credibly, and then play the consequences of that decision that you referenced at the top of the pilot, both in terms of the humanity of it, the drama of it, and then the comedy that I think was needed to bounce him back from that rock bottom that he hit when his brother came and scooped him up and took him out to the Hamptons. I think as soon as Mark came in and auditioned for the role, we gave him a few of those critical scenes. The moment of that difficult decision in the yard, the moment of depression in his apartment, and then that first moment out in the Hamptons, and he hit all of those colors brilliantly.

Re: Paulo Costanzo:

Lenchweski: He came and auditioned for us here in LA. We saw about 50 or 60 people and he was the third one we saw, and it just didn’t get any better than that. He brought a brilliant comedic take to the character and notably, this character is actually written originally as Hank’s best friend, and as soon as he walked in, we said, well, he can’t be his best friend, he looks too much like his brother. So the next thought was, okay, let's rewrite the script. And Evan became Hank’s brother.

Feuerstein: Paulo Costanzo is insane, and I love every part of his insanity. He is someone with no filter, whatever is appearing in his brain will come out of his mouth, and I love that about him and I love the way that that translates into his portrayal of Evan Lawson. Evan Lawson as a character is someone who, I don’t know, he’s sort of on some level the opposite of Hank. He doesn’t think about anything before he does it. He loves money. He loves the good life. He’s sort of living the Dionysian fantasy, and we’ve put him the perfect place to live it out. So, Paulo Costanzo only is perfect to play a part like that, because he is Dionysus himself.

Re: Campbell Scott

Lenchewski: We sent him the script, he read it, and he agreed to do it. I think that's another one of the great advantages of filming in New York is that we have access to a completely different talent pool, being so close to the Broadway community and to actors who live in New York and tend to like to and want to work there, and Campbell happens to be one of those guys, and it's been an enormous thrill to be able to work with him.

Rauch: And just to add to that, aside from being an incredible actor, he's a fantastic guy. He's just an incredibly positive presence to have on the set.

Feuerstein: I love Campbell Scott. Before we did the show I only loved him as an actor, and really admired his work; now I love him as a person. It’s a dream to work with him, not just because he’s so professional and he shows up and he is like beyond perfection on the first take and then the second one is even more brilliant than the last, but also because nobody else could perform this very odd role of a German baron named Boris in the Hamptons. But somehow in his person and in his delivery every line comes out in the most nuanced, unique, original way.

And Paulo and I, who are already living the male fantasy in the show, are living out the actor fantasy when we get to perform with Campbell, because any actor would dream to do a scene with Campbell Scott, he’s just one of the best actors we have. And when he says a word, like my name, “I have plans for you, Hank,” or when we’re talking about the scene where he has a shark in his basement, that’s all I’ll say for now, and he’s looking at it and he talks about how sharks have buoyancy, and he just has fun with the word. He just says, “Yes, these sharks, they have so much buoyancy.” Then there’s a line where I’m doing a scene with Paulo, and he says, “Because Hank, the best things in life are free.” No one can do the delivery the way he does it, but it makes you stand there, wonder what the hell just happened, why am I scared, and who am I dealing with, and then when you stop and they yell, “Cut,” you go, “I’m dealing with the most brilliant actor I’ve ever gotten to work with.”

So, in conclusion, it’s pretty good. I like working with Campbell Scott. He’s amazing.

On The Creation of the Series

Lenchewski: The idea came, actually, from a friend of mine who was telling me about a concierge doctor that his family had begun to use, and he asked me whether I thought it would be a good idea for a TV show and I said it wouldn’t, I thought it would be the perfect idea for a TV show. And so we, along with two of our other executive producers, Paul Frank and Rich Frank, we went off and pitched it to a few networks, and USA was the one that really, most strongly embraced what it was. And I went off and wrote the script, we shot the pilot last September, got picked up the series in January, and we’ve just begun production within the past couple months and we're now about to start shooting our fifth episode.

On Medical Accuracy

Lenchewski: We have a tremendous medical advisor, his name is Dr. Irv Danesh, and he is an ER physician outside of Boston, and he spends time with us out here in the writer’s room in LA, he spends time on the set anytime we're shooting medical scenes, and he spends a lot of time with the writers by phone and e-mail; and everything that we do medically either comes from him or filters through him and, as Michael touched on earlier, authenticity, both in terms of the location and the medicine, is of tremendous importance to us.

One of our senior writers, Carol Flint, was one of the senior writers on ER for the first four seasons of that show and she likes to say there are only so many things that can go wrong with the human body, so I think there's a lot of overlaps between the world of emergency medicine that Hank used to practice in, and the one that our medical advisor Irv Danesh practices in, and the one that Hank now practices in as a concierge doctor in the Hamptons. Another thing that Irv brings to the table, which has just been a huge asset to the storytelling, is this enormous sense of creativity, we call it the MacGyver aspect of the show, where if you’ve seen the pilot, Hank, when he's in Tucker’s house, asks for the bottle of vodka and a zip lock bag and a sharp pointy knife; and so I think you’ll be seeing a lot more of that. It's something that we enjoy writing and from what we can tell so far, the audience will really enjoy seeing, and I think that allows us to really elevate the stakes of the kinds of medical cases we can deal with outside of a hospital and in people’s homes, so I think that's going to be one of the really fun things to explore.

On The Hamptons & Location Shooting In NY

Rauch:: This show does take place in New York, and especially in the Hamptons, and we really wanted to have the authenticity of that as opposed to shooting it in Toronto for New York, or even LA for New York, and the environment is such a critical element of the show… Those locations with the landscape and the ocean and just the really beautiful elegance of the Hamptons, felt like it would be such an important layer to the show itself, and also the tax incentive that New York is giving to television shows and films really helped us get it in regarding the budget and the network approving it, was a big deal as well.

Feuerstein: Well, first of all, I grew up in New York City, going to first a public school, then a private school, and when I got to the private school in Manhattan, I learned of what we called “The Promised Land,” which are the Hamptons. I’ve always had an affinity for the Hamptons. I think it is one of the most romantic, beautiful, pristine, exclusive, in a private and kind of meditative way, places on earth.

On The Importance of Being
On the USA Network

Feuerstein: Well, it could not be a more perfect network to have Royal Pains on it, and I’ll begin by telling you that I’ve been on my share of network dramas and comedies, and the problem sometimes in a network is they have a single-minded focus on making the show true to whatever genre it is. So, if you’re on a drama, it better be procedural, it better fulfill all the demands of a procedural show, and you better keep those episodes independent, so that if I’m watching the show in seven years as its syndicated on some other cable network, I don’t have to know what happened before or after the episode, and everything is meant to support the procedure. If you’re on, say, a comedy, everything has to be funny and wacky and zany.

But somehow USA has found the perfect marriage of procedural drama and comedy, and they have it in Psych, they have it in Burn Notice, they have it in Monk, they have it in In Plain Sight; every show manages to somehow blend comedy and drama and tell a story that might be slightly serialized. So that you do have to tune in every week to see, say in our case, the relationship between me and my landlord, Boris is at, where my relationship with me and Jill, the romantic relationship that I’m involved in, where we’re at with those. But at the same time every week if you tune in, you’ll watch a medical drama, a medical story told from beginning to middle to end, and it will also satisfy all the demands of a procedure, while giving you all this character, all this story, all this nuance and comedy along the way.

Rauch: To USA’s great credit, I think one of the major reasons for their success, and I think it’s a credit to the cable model in general, is that they're not doing a volume business. They really very carefully hand pick the ideas that they want to pilot, and the pilots that they want to shoot, and the months that we spent waiting weren’t really just waiting, it was really fine-tuning the script and the characters and the vision for where the series would go. So I think that really was a very encouraging process to go through.

Re: Following Burn Notice:

Rauch: I think that USA is very savvy in pairing us with that show. I think there's a lot of shared sensibility. I think there's a lot that the two central characters, the heroes, share in common, guys who have sort of, through no choice of their own left their old lives behind and are now working outside the system to help people in beautiful, sunny locations, surrounded by a cast of quirky and fun characters. So hopefully the shows will work really well together and feed off each other.

Feuerstein: Jace Alexander, who is one of our co-executive producers, and Jace directed the pilot of Burn Notice and he directed the pilot for Royal Pains

What I love about the way he shot Royal Pains, like there’s one tracking shot that though it doesn’t advance the story as much, it creates this beautiful picture of the world, I think they had to fight to keep that shot. But it’s such an awesome tracking shot through the whole party, as everyone’s looking at me wandering through the party, you get to see the faces of the people who live in the Hamptons, so, the hot ladies, the rich men, the plastic surgeons, the kind of characters who live in the world. And you get to see it through this very cool, very slick camera move that says to the viewer, “This show is going to move along at a fast clip, and it’s going to be fun, and you’re going to get characters and stories along the way.” I think that’s part of USA’s entire aesthetic. So, the camera work is consistent with sort of the message of the entire network, which has its own sort of personality and brand at this point.

The other thing that I wanted to say is that USA is so smart in the way that they market our shows that they’ve actually managed to sort of create this universe … who could in some … live in the same universe. And they’ve done that in a crossover promotion, where Michael Westen, the character from Burn Notice, is actually sending a letter off and in the letter he says, “Hey man, I know what it’s like to come to a new place and set up shop when you don’t anybody and you don’t know the lay of the land. So, here are a few things that might help you. Here’s a bottle of suntan lotion”—which is perfect for him in Miami and me in the Hamptons. “Here’s a pair of sunglasses.” Perfect. “And here’s some C4 explosives.” So, here I am at the end of the promo, staring at a package of clay explosives, not knowing what to do with it, and that, of course, is where our characters diverge. But on all other fronts they’re quite similar. They have a sense of humor, it’s slightly dark, and they’re in this very … and beautiful place, in the case of him, Miami, and in our case, the Hamptons, to do a job. So, somehow USA managed to create this very uniform, very diverse but sort of well-tied-together world.