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Team USA: The Socioeconomic Case for Royal Pains

Royal Pains may not be the most watched show on USA right now — that would be Burn Notice — but it comes close. Last week it was USA’s second-highest rated drama (barring wrestling), pulling in 3.874 million people. But more importantly, since it premiered in June 2009, it has been an anchor of USA’s ever-growing original programming block and remains one of its most fun shows.

This is the show for you if you like: The O.C., The Real Housewives of New York, and late-1990s television. There is something timeless about Royal Pains. On the surface it’s 2012: The clothes look right (more or less; there is a mild case of Degrassi syndrome, i.e., when the styles look almost exactly on-trend but there is just something a little … off), modern kitchens with Viking ranges abound, and there is no indication that this show is not set in the present. Yet, there is no overwhelming indication that it is set in the present, either.

Dr. Hank Lawson, our protagonist, is a New York doctor who flees to the Hamptons following a career crisis at his former hospital in Manhattan. He arrives in his new town, ambivalent about the vast wealth that he confronts, carrying emotional baggage from his recent meltdown and a fatherless childhood. That’s Ryan Atwood—ish, right? It’s also a premise that would have worked at any point over the last 20 years or so. There might not be a debutante ball with Jimmy Cooper getting punched out, but there are plenty of parties and rich-people functions for Hank and his CPA brother Evan to use to recruit new patients. Meanwhile, the show does not shy away from the rich vs. poor (or summer residents vs. year-round residents, in this case) conflicts that attend any story about the wealthy. The show is punctuated by the same kind of aerial shots of the Hamptons that tell us we are now in Montauk with Bethenny or playing tennis in the summer with Ramona Singer and Jill Zarin. The glossy opulence matched with the cheery instrumental music seems distinctly pre-recession, and haven’t we had enough of the timely, America-is-doomed-and-everyone-is-unemployed shtick?

The person you are most likely to recognize from a previous show or movie: Royal Pains has an impressive coterie of guest stars and recurring actors. Andrew McCarthy dropped in early in Season 1, bringing memories of Weekend at Bernie’s with him (though Paulo Costanzo is occupying that Larry Wilson role). Grey Gardens‘ Christine Ebersole apparently can’t get enough of Long Island, as she was one of the first patients of HankMed. Henry Winkler plays the highly contentious Lawson patriarch. Even Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden has made an appearance.

This list of famous and semi-famous actors really could go on and on (JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Molly Sims, Mary Lynn Rajskub …), but Royal Pains has undoubtedly provided a strong reference-point for the careers of Mark Feuerstein and Costanzo, both of whom had long résumés leading up to this show despite not quite reaching the level of being stopped on the street. Before the show, Feuerstein was probably most well-known for his time on The West Wing, or for his one-episode stint on Sex and the City as one of Miranda’s boyfriends.

Now, after four seasons (and a one-time hosting gig on WWE’s Raw), he is definitely “that Royal Pains guy.” Costanzo’s CV may be shorter, but he had two well-seen yet nameless turn-of-the-century roles: that guy in Road Trip and that roommate in 40 Days and 40 Nights. In the last 10 years, Costanzo remains recognizable as an important face in that teen movie craze, but he has settled in nicely on USA.

The basic plot points you need to know: This is actually the perfect time to begin watching Royal Pains. Hank Lawson first moved to the Hamptons with his brother Evan because he was forced out of his old hospital in New York. Hank made an ethically correct choice to save a kid over the hospital’s billionaire benefactor. That’s basically all you need to know about the salt of Hank’s character, which propels him as he starts a clinic for the less fortunate, while also treating more wealthy clients like his one-time landlord, German aristocrat Boris (Campbell Scott). Hank and Evan started HankMed, a “concierge doctor” service — he makes house calls and his brother is the CFO. Evan is the free-spirit brother: He goes after a lot of ladies (although he is now engaged) and is more fun-loving. Evan is definitely the candidate you want to have a beer with, but probably not the guy you want as president. At the end of last season (which was in January 2012; it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of show seasons on USA due to their winter and summer seasons), Hank and Evan had a rift. Evan, who is decidedly not a doctor, used experimental equipment on a patient. Somewhat unrelated yet still important, he bought out their lovely assistant Divya, thereby giving himself a controlling stake in HankMed and freeing Divya of her massive debt. The double-whammy of Evan’s bad non-doctor judgment and financial control has forced Hank to quit their partnership. Now we have Hank the Solo Artist Doctor and Evan’s HankMed 2.0 (he hired a new doctor). Divya, meanwhile, is scheming to reunite them, and to do so, she has called their highly controversial father, Barry Zuckerkorn a.k.a. the Fonz a.k.a. Henry Winkler. You see, father Lawson is an absentee father-embezzler-ex-con-turned-CI. Tonight he returns to the show.

But here is the real reason why you should watch now: Hank’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Jill Casey has just left to help the needy in Africa. For good, we think. If you start watching now, it will be as if you only watched the Valerie Malone era of 90210 (Brenda who?) or the Tori era of Saved by the Bell (Kelly who?). Royal Pains is giving you a point of entry with this sea change. Take it!

Final Argument: Royal Pains is really a fun show. It depicts a lifestyle that has become so common on television. There are the examples I’ve already given — the Housewives “reality,” the heightened reality of shows like The O.C. — and depictions of how the other, wealthy half live keep on appearing, both scripted and unscripted. But with Royal Pains, you’re free to salivate at the beautiful beaches and laugh at the idiotic rich people without any guilt, because the reality here only matters insomuch that at some point, somewhere in the universe, maybe these things could have happened. And the show seems to know this. Every once in a while, a character will say something to remind you that the show itself is in on the joke. For me, those moments are usually worth slogging through the lesser moments (see: seasons 5 and 6 of Dawson’s Creek). And if you still need more, the chemistry of Hank and Evan is great, especially as they are quasi-feuding. Divya, their PA, is also a surprising treat, as she’s one of the better-drawn tertiary characters on these basic cable shows.

Juliet Litman works on the Grantland Quarterly (Issue 3 available now!) and is a passionate advocate for TV’s unloved children.