In 1990, CBS debuted Northern Exposure, a series about a brilliant young doctor from New York forced by financial constraints to live and work among odd characters in the tiny town of Cicely, Alaska. Beloved by critics, the show enjoyed a healthy five-year run. Now, USA has borrowed this formula for Royal Pains: here, Hank (Mark Feuerstein) is the brilliant young doctor from New York, forced by circumstances to live and work among odd characters in… the Hamptons. Same story, opposite end of the economic spectrum.
An erstwhile ER doctor with a promising future, Hank would not have chosen to be a concierge doctor, that is, on call for the rich and famous. But following a rough day at work, he is blackballed in the New York medical community and sued, to boot. His social-climbing fiancée dumps him and his furniture is repossessed.
Only when he has run out of booze and Netflix freezes his account does he get up and out of his apartment, on a weekend road trip with brother Evan (Paulo Constanzo) to the Hamptons. Evan weasels them into a high society party on their first night in town. Predictably, a guest collapses and the resident concierge doctor misreads her condition. Hank intercedes with a correct diagnosis and by morning, word has spread that he’s the new concierge doctor.
This even though rejects the offer repeatedly. Most of the series’ premiere focuses on how Hank is lured into taking the job. Not surprisingly, it is not the medical challenges that Hank is attracted to, but a woman, in this case the administrator of the local hospital, Jill (Jill Flint), who aspires to open a free clinic for the majority of Hampton residents who don’t have money. One can easily imagine the future episode where Hank’s former fiancée returns after he has reestablished himself, and Hank must choose between her and the beautiful and far more compassionate Jill.
In addition to the romance, Hank quickly establishes several new friendships. Foremost is Boris (Campbell Scott), the party host who rewards Hank with a gold bar and his guesthouse. He’s also rewarded by the local queen of plastic surgery (Christine Ebersole), when he makes her makes “presentable” following the deflation of one of her breast implants. It is only with Tucker (Ezra Miller) that Hank makes an attempt to connect, feeling sympathy for the 16-year-old when his parents refuse to return from their summer vacation after he’s involved in a life-threatening car accident.
As all of the above suggests, things tend to happen to Hank. The only decision he makes during this first hour is to break off his engagement, and this only in reaction to his fiancée’s ultimatum (“I’ll see your postponement and raise you,” he tells her). One hopes that Hank will start standing up for himself and acting instead of reacting. Then again, if he had done so in the series’ beginning, he wouldn’t have found himself in the Hamptons—and then where would Royal Pains be?
Complicating Hank’s ability to run his own life are his brother and Divya (Remsha Shetty), a Hamptons native who has appointed herself as the new concierge doctor’s personal assistant. Evan promotes Hank and recruits clients, while Divya has an alarming access to a variety of medical supplies that she carries around in the back of her SUV. Perhaps more importantly, Evan provides self-aware comic relief, a welcome contrast to his brother’s constant befuddlement. On entering Hank’s apartment during his initial depression, Evan notes that it smells like “a moose has had sex with a bucket of Chinese food.”
Evan also helps Hank to understand himself as a “stranger in a strange land.” And his difference from his patients seems unlikely to dissipate. Where Northern Exposure‘s Joel (Rob Morrow) came to care about the residents of Cicely, in spite and even because of their eccentricities, it’s hard to imagine Hank establishing any affectionate bonds with his snobby clientele (save for Jill).
It might be argued that the oddballs in Royal Pains fit USA’s tagline (“Characters wanted”). But it has a primary problem, in that the weakest character is the lead. We need to feel more connection with Hank to care where he winds up, and it’s hard to bond with a man who spends over a month in his underwear drinking beer and feeling sorry for himself. That aside, Royal Pains is a pleasant excursion, with some great one-liners and a chance to tweak its well-worn formula.