Friday, June 5, 2009

Two New Summer Shows: "Royal Pains" and "The Listener"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

It's nearly summer, which means beaches, barbecues and crappy television. In the past, it was the season for reruns. But now, the broadcast networks rely mostly on lightweight reality programs to fill out their schedules. Sensing a void, in recent years basic cable outlets began jumping in with one-hour scripted dramas, ranging from the light (USA's "Burn Notice") to the artsy (AMC's "Mad Men") to the intense (FX's "The Shield"), with lots of vehicles for older film actresses playing tough and flawed characters in between (TNT's "Saving Grace" and "The Closer," FX's "Damages"). And the networks will occasionally toss in a less expensive one-hour drama into the mix, like CBS did last summer, finding success with Canadian import "Flashpoint," and critical love for "Swingtown."

It should come as no surprise that two new one-hour scripted programs would arrive on the scene on the same day this week, both playing a bit of follow the leader. USA launched another entry that falls on the light side, "Royal Pains" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern), while NBC tried to find success by blindly copying a trend (really, two trends), with the Canadian drama "The Listener" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern).

In what stands as a clear sign that the industry has drastically changed in the last five-to-10 years, the budget for one episode of the basic cable entry, which features some recognizable names and faces, could probably fund an entire short season of the network program, which has a cast of unknowns.

Let's start with "The Listener," just because it's so easy to dismiss. I know I embarked on a karma-induced quest to stop picking on NBC, but "The Listener" stands for everything the network has consistently done wrong in recent years, namely blindly copying other successes without getting the essence of what made the other programs work. The formula for "The Listener" is quite simple:

CBS's success with an I-can-hear-thoughts protagonist (at least he claims to be able to), the hit new show "The Mentalist"


CBS's success taking on a cheap Canadian crime program last summer, "Flashpoint"


"The Listener"

But here's the thing: Since "The Mentalist" is a hit, "The Listener" is a knock-off lacking a new concept. And unlike "Flashpoint," "The Listener" is, well, bad.

Set in Toronto where it is shot (it's nice to see a new city for a change), "The Listener" follows Toby (Craig Olejnik), a newbie paramedic who can hear people's thoughts and, sometimes, see and hear their memories. The opening voice over explaining Toby's situation, with ominous music, the camera spinning around him, and Mickey Spillane-esque detective novel-style language, felt like a "Saturday Night Live" parody of a rip-off of a show like "The Mentalist." It was that over-the-top.

In the pilot, Toby struggles to handle his gift, as it increases in intensity, allowing him to sense that a woman in a car wreck had her son snatched from her before the crash. He seeks the help of his mentor, a professor (Ray, played by the only recognizable name in the cast, Colm Feore), who is introduced in a so-poorly-staged-it's-funny scene, as three college students worship him as they walk towards Toby on campus. Ray warns Toby not to reveal his gift to anyone, something that becomes difficult as he tries to reconcile with his on-again, off-again doctor girlfriend (Olivia, played by the wooden Mylene Dinh-Robic) and cover for his buffoonish partner (Oz, played by Ennis Esmer).

When Toby tries to get the woman in the accident to confide in him what he knows from reading her mind -- that a man with a gun took away her son -- she gets scared and runs away. Olivia warns him that she has a concussion and is in danger, which is a problem since in later scenes, she looks perfectly fine, runs, drives, and generally acts like a healthy person. Toby repeatedly crosses paths with a detective, Charlie, played by Lisa Marcos, whose barely competent line readings only serve to amplify the fact that Charlie may be the least believable cop on television. Toby discovers that the bad guy is a detective, and that the woman had witnessed him accidentally shooting his partner during an argument.

Toby consistently stays one step ahead of Charlie and the rest of the police force, managing to track down the woman and her son and save them as the bad guy has them literally trapped at the edge of a cliff.

With its basic plot, lacking enough suspense, intrusive and cheesy synth score, and uniformly lousy performances, "The Listener" is exceptionally amateurish. Canada has produced some great actors, and we know from all the television shows and films shot there that they have competent crew people north of the border, so I don't know how "The Listener" ended up looking and sounding so awful. "Flashpoint" was able to put together the writing and production quality to draw a U.S. audience (plus, it starred Enrico Colantoni, who was a lead on two well-known programs, "Just Shoot Me" and "Veronica Mars"). I'm not sure why "The Listener" is of such an inferior quality. It is a mystery as to why NBC thought airing this derivative mess was worth time on its schedule.

"Royal Pains" is much harder to nail down. There was so much I liked about the program, and so much I didn't, it's hard to figure out what to think, or how future episodes will play out.

Hank (Mark Feuerstein, "Good Morning Miami") is an up-and-coming trauma physician at a New York hospital with a pretty fiance who admits to her life-long ambition to marry a doctor. When Hank takes a stand and insists on treating a young guy he saved when he collapsed during their pick-up basketball game, rather than monitoring the more stable condition of an old hospital benefactor, and after the donor dies of an unforeseeable complication, Hank is fired and blackballed, leaving him unemployed and depressed (he gets emotional while watching the kiss in "Mask," the father-son catch in "Field of Dreams" and a fight on the "The Jerry Springer Show"). When Hank's fiance tells him that she "didn't sign on for this" and asks for a postponement of their wedding, he dumps her.

With his life totally in the toilet (a fast-motion sequence shows his possessions being repossessed while he continues to watch his big-screen television), Hank's CPA brother, Evan (Paulo Costanzo, "Road Trip," "Joey"), shows up, promising him a wild time in the Hamptons. After Evan cleverly and impressively talks them into an exclusive party at a jaw-dropping mansion (the owner, Boris, is played by Campbell Scott, employing a German accent, and no, that is not a typo), Hank saves the life of a woman having a seizure (the host's personal doctor assumes its drugs, but Hank, like a medical Columbo, figures out in 10 seconds that it's an allergic reaction to pesticides), and before he can say "Marcus Welby," Boris wants Hank to be his new "concierge doctor" for the summer (he pays Hank for his night's work with an actual bar of gold), and every mogul in the Hamptons wants Hank's services, too. Hank, though, has no interest at all, despite the urgings of Evan and Divya (newcomer Reshma Shetty), the uber-prepared physician's assistant who wants to work for him.

When the first episode of "Pains" wrapped up, I felt more conflicted than I can remember any program making me feel. On the positive side, "Pains" is genuinely funny, with some razor-sharp lines and observations about the wealthy set. Upon entering the mansion, Evan says to Hank, "Bro, this is where God would party," to which Hank replies, "If he could get in." And in my favorite line of the night, Tucker (Ezra Miller, "Californication"), a 16-year-old rich kid who has cracked up his father's limited edition Ferrari, tells Hank, "Let's avoid the Billy Joel jokes. He lives in ear shot."

I also really liked Costanzo's manic, dorky antics. Evan is far more outgoing and confident than the awkward nerd he played on "Joey" or the intellectual he took on in "Road Trip." He is the best thing in "Pains."

I even liked the chemistry between Feuerstein and Jill Flint ("Six Degrees"), who plays Jill, the altruistic administrator of the local hospital (which is derided by the locals as strictly for the common folk, unfit to treat their billionaire bodies) who gives Hank a reason to stay.

And as much as I thought I wouldn't, other than Boris (and Scott's Colonel Klink accent), I really liked the jet-setters that Hank treats. Christine Ebersole is a scene-stealer as a demanding socialite addicted to plastic surgery (Hank helps her with her "flat tire" when one of her new, over-sized saline implants pops). And one of my new favorite TV couples is Tucker (the Ferrari wrecker) and his WebMD-addicted girlfriend Libby (Meredith Hagner, "As the World Turns"). Tucker calls Hank to help Libby after the accident (she has self-diagnosed herself with a laundry list of injuries), but in an unexpected twist (although I should have seen it coming, since it's a device used on "Grey's Anatomy" all the time), Tucker passes out with the real injuries. Turns out he's a hemophiliac, and Hank uses duct tape, a box cutter, vodka and a plastic bag to do gruesome ad hoc surgery to save him (causing Libby to ask if Hank is MacGyver, which is funny, but would a 16-year-old girl know who MacGyver is?). Tucker and Libby are like a wealthy/nutty Sid and Nancy, fighting but fiercely loyal to each other. And Miller gives Tucker heart, revealing him to be a lonely (but not TOO lonely, after all, he's loaded enough to buy a replacement Ferrari) teen below the money and swagger.

The show looks amazing. With the beach and mansion settings, after the earlier scenes in Hank's Brooklyn loft and on an outdoor Manhattan basketball court, and the film-quality cinematography, "Pains" is a pleasure to watch. And the producers have a great ear for music, with quirky selections like "Wishing Well" by the Airborne Toxic Event and "Be Home Soon" by the Blue Van providing the perfect accompaniment to the last two scenes of the pilot.

So this sounds like a positive review, right? Well, not so fast. There is another side to the story.

First of all, the pilot's plot made no sense. I didn't believe that Hank could be fired and blackballed that easily, I didn't believe he would be in debt so quickly, I didn't believe he didn't see that his fiance was a gold-digger before she revealed her true colors to him, I didn't believe his name would shoot around the Hamptons that quickly (although it made for a funny running joke), I didn't believe he would be so resistant to making some fast money for a summer to help pay his bills (especially since he believes he has no chance to get any medical job due to the blackball), I didn't believe he would change his mind so quickly based on one dinner with Jill, and I didn't believe Evan could have so little going on in his career that he could drop everything to work with Hank in the Hamptons. In short, I didn't believe nearly any of the key plot points. That's kind of a problem.

As played by Feuerstein, Hank is kind of a stiff zero. I didn't buy the overly stylized way Hank ran medical situations. And everyone seemed to be attracted to Hank, but nothing in Feuerstein's performance let me see why. I guess he was going for depressed and sullen, but it came off as self-important and dull. No matter how funny Costanzo, Ebersole, Miller and Hagner are, if the main guy doesn't cut it, the show won't either. I will be interested to see if Feuerstein gives Hank some life in future episodes now that he has accepted his fate to live in the Hamptons.

While so much of the comedy works well, too much of the more dramatic dialogue came off as cliched and not believable. Upon meeting his fiance for dinner, Hank says to her, "After a long day of life and death, there is nothing more appealing than the site of the world's most beautiful girl." She eats it up. Most actual women would burst into laughter. Later, in bed, the fiance says to Hank, "Don't you just think that every day for us is better than the one before?" Uh, not if you're going to talk like that, no.

And it's so hard to take Scott seriously with that German accent.

But my biggest problem with "Pains" wasn't about plot and dialogue, but about character, specifically the female characters. As the pilot wore on, I became more an more uncomfortable, as it started to seem as though the writer had a real problem with women. Essentially, every woman on the show falls into one of three categories: Evil women who want something, crazy women, or the one perfect woman with no flaws. There are literally no exceptions. Hank's fiance is a gold-digging, cold user. The hospital administrator in New York is a heartless, power-worshiping back-stabber. The women in the car next to Evan and Hank in traffic literally give them a test to see if they're worthy of conversation (Rent or own? North or south of the highway? Which Hampton? When Evan says Westhampton, or "Worst Hampton" as they call it, the women speed off in disgust). At the party, every woman Hank talks to immediately leaves him, with not so much as a goodbye, when he reveals that he isn't wealthy and his shirt is from Costco.

Then we move from evil to crazy. The woman Hank saves at the party develops Nightingale Syndrome, becomes convinced she is in love with him, and stalks him. Ebersole's plastic surgery junkie runs around like a Jack Russell terrier on speed. Libby is a hypochondriac (and Hank diagnoses her as such). Even Divya's ambition and attention to detail is portrayed as neurotic, something that is reinforced when we overhear a brief phone conversation with what is presumably her mother.

And finally, Jill is the one, perfect woman, idealistic, grounded (Hank finds out that she was only at Boris's party because he donates money to her clinic) and unconditionally supportive of Hank, even researching his case and telling him why he got screwed. Jill has no flaws, which is, in a way, as unfair to women as the sea of evil and crazy women who preceded her.

I don't mean to be a buzz kill, and I know that silly, fun television shows are not always flattering to women, but there was something almost aggressive about the way "Pains" seems to have a problem with its female characters. It made me uncomfortable, and I thought it would be dishonest not to address it.

We'll see how future episodes of "Royal Pains" play out, and whether the program's good qualities will take over the bad ones, or vice versa. No such patience is needed with "The Listener." It's awfulness is apparent. Does this mean I'm back to being hard on NBC? Well, let's see if I can get out of this and maintain my positive karma: Since "The Listener" is a low-profile summer show and not one of NBC's high-profile new offerings for the fall, it demonstrates that the network has learned its lesson and is trying to move forward, away from copy-cat disasters and on to better, more original programs. Does that work?