Wednesday, June 3, 2009
"Burn Notice" is hot, but "Pains" hurts to watch
When USA debuted the TV show "Monk" in 2002, it was a turning point for the network. Sure, USA had aired original series before (most notably the popular cheesefest "Silk Stalkings"), but "Monk" was arguably the first show to employ USA's now-popular recipe for creating a successful show: Take one likable, semi-recognizable actor (in this case, Tony Shalhoub). Then, put him/her in a simply plotted, high-concept show who premise can, preferably, be described in one sentence. Add in colorful supporting characters. Mix well. Serve.
USA has since employed this formula to create several shows, including "Psych," "In Plain Sight" and, most successfully, "Burn Notice." That last series, stars Jeffrey Donovan as blacklisted spy Michael Westen, who lives in Miami and uses his spy know-how both to fight his enemies and help the disenfranchised. The show, which returns for its third season at 9 p.m. tonight, contains all the basic USA elements. It's quick, slick, and not overly complicated. But underneath all the cool spy gimmicks, Miami sunshine and one-liners is a real emotional core. Over the show's past two seasons, we've come to care about Michael and his two partners, on-again-off-again girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and schlubby tough guy Sam Axe (the great Bruce Campbell).
At the end of last season, Michael finally cut himself off from the people who burned him -- a moment punctuated by a spectacular jump from a helicopter. This season finds him facing the consequences of his actions, which (spoiler alert) haven't made his life any easier.
The season premiere is a bit of a come-down after last season's emotional, action-packed finale, but it still contains a lot of action, some good character development moments, and just the right amount of scenes in which Campbell's Sam sucks down a beer like it's mother's milk. The second episode, airing next week, is even stronger, as the gang fights to retrieve a kidnapped child. "Burn Notice" isn't just typical USA escapism. It's the real deal: a show that entertains, but doesn't insult your intelligence.
If "Burn Notice" represents the high end of USA's programming, the new series "Royal Pains" is definitely the low end. The show debuts 10 p.m. Thursday, right after the season premiere of "Burn Notice," but shares none of its lead-in's depth and cleverness. The show centers around Hank (the likable Mark Feuerstein of "Good Morning Miami" and the movie "In Her Shoes"), a brilliant ER doc who finds himself blacklisted following a principled (but politically un-savvy) decision. After dropping out of life totally, he's lured back to the land of the living by his goofy accountant brother (Paulo Costanzo), who invites him to crash a party in the Hamptons. Of course, while at the party, Hank saves a guest, and all the richies want to adopt him as their own personal concierge doctor. The show isn't terrible, and Feuerstein is quite charming in the lead. But it's flat, predictable and unexceptional. The few zesty moments are provided by Costanzo, who is a lively, quick-talking presence, and by the always-welcome Campbell Scott, seen all too briefly as the powerful host of that fateful party.
I might be being a bit hard on "Royal Pains." It could get better. Most USA shows do improve as they go along. But, frankly, I wasn't moved enough by the pilot (which, by the way, is a butt-numbing 90 minutes long) to give it a second chance.
I realize that USA's goal isn't to provide ground-breaking television. It's to provide pleasant, watchable television. But it's possible to do that and also engage the minds and hearts of your audience. Hopefully, the network's next originally offering will be more "Burn," less "Pain."