Saturday, September 11, 2010

USA's Royal Pains: More Than Just a Medical MacGyver

Originally published by PopMatters on July 27, 2010

There are few destinations in this world or any other that simply scream summer more than Greenpoint. Greenpoint, the Brooklyn neighborhood with hipster-lousy Williamsburg to the south and undeniably less hipster-lousy Long Island City to the north, is a sweltering morass of concrete and cacophony this time of year, with the relief of the occasional breeze offset by the stench of rotting garbage, human waste and cigarette smoke carried along in its dithering. Greenpoint, naturally, is where the iconic guest house on USA’s Royal Pains is located.

Okay, so that isn’t exactly true. I mean, yes, the guest house that’s larger than most domiciles in the neighborhood actually is in Greenpoint, but only the interior. Utilizing some terrifically (for television) Hollywood magic, the producers of Royal Pains have constructed a spacious Hamptons cottage complete with ocean breezes in a Greenpoint studio. It’s also my neighborhood, which meant I was able to walk there during a recent visit to the set as cast and crew worked on an episode of the show, currently in its second season. These puppeteers of Tinseltown tomfoolery haven’t just performed an architectural miracle in Brooklyn; they’ve also beaten the odds and (at least presently) put a previously cursed actor into a hit series.  

Mark Feuerstein is a show killer. The genial actor’s resume reads like a casting department’s cautionary tale: Fired UpConrad BloomThe Heart DepartmentGood Morning, Miami3 lbs. Each show featured Feuerstein in a prominent role, and each fell quickly off its network’s broadcast schedule and into the sucking void of bar trivia obscurity.

Feuerstein is nothing if not tenacious, and he’s finally found his footing, scoring with audiences as Dr. Hank Lawson on the USA Network summer series Royal Pains last year. The show, a “blue sky” comic-drama about a Hamptons concierge doctor with a heart of gold and a money-hustling accountant brother named Evan began its second season in June by adding Henry Winkler to the cast as the Lawson bros’ long-absent shitheel father.

The season one finalé closed with a handful of reasonably intriguing cliffhangers, the most compelling of which was that the brothers’ business Hank Med had been fleeced by their father, Eddie. Heading into hiatus with the task of nailing down a suitable pater familias. Executive Producer Michael Rauch talked about how they found their way to Winkler.

“We knew very early on in season one that we wanted to bring the father in to season two when one of the themes of the first season was the absence of family,” Rauch said. “And we thought for the second season one of the themes would be the presence of family.”

Rauch said that he and Co-Executive Producer Andrew Lenchewski compiled a list of actors they could see playing the role of Eddie Lawson, “Which was basically every Oscar winner in the history of film.”

The network responded with its own list of actors, including Winkler.

“We both kind of had the first response of, like, ‘Not an Oscar winner, but very, very intriguing,’” said Rauch. “And it took us both by surprise. But the more we thought about it, the more he felt like the tone of the show, in terms of being a light ‘blue sky’ show and the way that Mark Feuerstein and Paulo Costanzo play the brothers, and this father’s going to be such an instrumental part of this season in terms of kind of stirring the pot. It felt like it would be a fun way to go, for the dad to be someone who’s very likeable and very loved and perhaps he leads with that and then we understand there’s a little more darkness underneath.”

It was during a meeting the pair had with Winkler that the venerable actor became the obvious choice.

“We found out that Henry Winkler, in fact, is a very big fan of the show, watched every episode,” said Rauch. “And when Andrew and I sat down and had breakfast with him, he started telling us lines that we had forgotten about.  And he was quoting moments and it just became this love fest, and by the time the coffee came, he became Eddie Lawson and it was impossible to imagine anyone else.”

For their part, the cast is grateful. Winkler’s huckster father won’t just play a role in the lives of Hank and Evan Lawson (Paolo Costanzo), but will also wreak havoc on Jill Casey (Jill Flint), a hospital administrator and Hank’s complicated love interest, and Divya Katdare (Reshma Shetty), HankMed’s physician assistant. While Eddie Lawson’s arrival at the end of the second season’s first episode was greeted by a haymaker from Hank, Winkler’s fellow actors are decidedly more welcoming.

“Well, other than the fact that sometimes his wings will burst out of the back of his blazer and hit you in the face, and then he starts cursing them and tries to cut them off and they just grow back, it’s wonderful,” said Costanzo. “He’s maybe the nicest person I’ve ever known…He could stab me, and in my mind I would justify it. I would think, ‘He’s doing this for a reason.’”

Feuerstein was equally loquacious of his Winkler crush.

“Henry Winkler is the greatest addition to this little family of our show on Royal Pains, both within the show and off camera,” he said. “They say he’s the nicest guy in Hollywood, and he really is. I mean he’s so classy and such a generous actor, and yet it’s slightly satisfying to punch him right across the face.”

These sort of light-hearted japes and jabs are nothing new to Hollywood stars, who often speak of one another with childlike versions of their names to prove how down to earth and chummy they actually are (Robert DeNiro is called “Bobby,” or James Cameron “Jimmy”), but goddamn, it sounds totally sincere coming from the Royal Pains cast. Everything does, even when viewed through a cynic’s bullshit detecting 3D glasses purchased from the back pages of teen Cynic Magazine.

The enthusiasm on the Greenpoint set is plausible for a number of reasons, not the least of which because every so often they actually get to leave the choking humidity and hipster softball leagues of nearby McCarren Park and head to the actual Hamptons. An extra special field trip this season resulted in a two-part episode filmed in Puerto Rico, which itself masqueraded rather effectively as Cuba.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the show is a hit. “What’s it like to be on a successful show? It’s better,” said Feuerstein. “It’s a lot more fun. You get to come back in the second season as opposed to reading crappy pilot scripts.”

What really makes it possible to buy all the nice guy stuff is the little moments where things maybe aren’t quite as nice. When one fellow online journo tried to openly flirt with Costanzo in the hopes he’d sit in the open seat directly to her right, he considered the offer and chose the other chair. Sure, he’d plied us with bottles of cold water on the sweltering set earlier, but whether he was kissing our asses or being a good guy, it was certainly appreciated.

Feuerstein is actually all over New York City. Not just in and around the studio, but on buses and billboards and subway platforms, where USA pulled out all the stops to advertise the crap out of the show’s return. And because it’s New York, most of those posters have been defaced, with the closest subway stops on the G line (Greenpoint Avenue and Nassau Avenue) to the studio coming under fire from Sharpie artists with a fondness in equal measures for drawing oversized genitals and misspelling “shity”. Feuerstein, who grew up in New York, said he felt as though he’d finally arrived when he heard about the posters being defaced.

“I will give $5 to anyone who puts a booger in my nose, a moustache on my face, a monocle on my eye,” he said. “I love it. It’s an honor, a great honor. I’m thrilled, are you kidding? It’s like, you know, the hero returning from battle. I have been in L.A. for 12 years. I’ve had my good experiences and my not so good experiences on TV shows, and I get to come back to my hometown, New York City, where I was born and raised, and there are defaced posters of me all over. I love it. And I’m just going to walk around after this interview with some Wite-Out and correct all the blemishes.”

Feuerstein’s nice guy act is so nauseatingly real, that one not only feels compelled to grab a beer and shoot the shit with him about stuff that has nothing to do with his TV show, but it also makes it okay when he veers into pie-in-the-sky platitudes.

“You know, there’s this stage direction in the pilot script,” he recalled. “It says, ‘Hank Lawson will make an entire generation of kids want to go to medical school.’ And it was such a ballsy kind of stage direction by Andrew Lenchewski, who wrote the pilot, but it was just that side of ballsy that made you desperate to have that part, because who doesn’t want to play a part what would inspire an entire generation of kids to go to medical school? A guy who has his heart in the right place and who gets to have the dimension comedically, dramatically and medically to save lives and do good and have a full romantic life. I mean, I’m the luckiest kid in town to get to play this part, and hopefully the part is even half as inspiring as Andrew intended it to be with that stage direction.”

Lest anyone think it’s all gone to his head, Feuerstein wanted to make it crystal clear that while he plays a sort of medical MacGyver on Royal Pains, he’s under no illusion that he’d be able to pull any of it off in real life.

“And that’s a good thing, because if I were, that person would surely die,” he said. “You know, it’s great to be able to learn about the kind of medical procedures that happen in impromptu emergency situations, and I love knowing what I know and my way around an EpiPen or a laryngoscope, but there’s a reason it takes 12 years to become a fellow or a resident and then a doctor. Because those are the people who should really be there. I dread the day when someone comes up to me and, you know, ‘Doctor?’ Not me!”

Also not really a doctor is Shetty, though she was pre-med as an undergrad.

“When I talk about being a doctor, I mean I was hardcore,” she said. “I was president of my science club. I was all that stuff in high school, and music was something that I did on the side. Acting was something I did as a hobby and I tended to be good at.”

Shetty’s familiarity with medicine, both from her own studies and her father actually being a doctor, prepared her for the role in ways her co-stars might not have been.

“Actually, yesterday they were doing some shot, and there was a burn or something,” she said. “And most people were like, ‘Ewww,’ but I was used to looking at my dad’s books and seeing all these gross things and liking the stories. And in pre-med, I did a program that we actually went into surgeries and followed the doctors in there and I remember seeing a hip replacement. And it’s really gross, but it’s fascinating, you know? I cannot watch slasher movies like Nightmare on Elm Street; I can’t deal with that, but I can deal with watching real-life surgeries. It’s very strange.”

With the part of Hank Lawson already cast, Costanzo very nearly didn’t make the cut because the role of Evan was initially written as Hank’s best friend.

“I pretty much knew going in that I was not going to get the part unless they (changed Evan into Hank’s brother),” he said. “Because you can’t look at us and have us be coincidentally best friends. People ask us if we’re real brothers all the time.”

Feuerstein picks up the thread, noting that not only would Costanzo’s curriculum vitae have contained one less significant item had the role of Evan not been rewritten, but the entire scope of the show, from its inaugural season of charaters getting to know one another as the actors got to know their own roles to the more dramatic and complex (for USA, anyway) familial issues brought to the fore this year, would have been drastically different. Plus, maybe no opportunity to punch Henry Winkler in the face.

“When Paulo and the four other guys who tested for the role of Evan came in, it was called Evan Waxman,” Feuerstein said. “And when Paulo came in and read, and those two schnozzes were going head to head, it was clear to everyone in the room that we were not going to be best friends anymore, we were going to be brothers. And it’s just crazy when you think about such a little change in the background of the character, and that the entire scope of the second season of our show is predicated on family. And that never would have been the case if Paulo had never come in to read for that role.”

It’s hardly the stuff of fairytales, but perhaps added to the show’s fantastic success, the feeling among its stars, guest stars (including Campbell Scott, Marcia Gay Harden, Anastasia Griffith, Andrew McCarthy and WWE superstar Big Show) and cast that they’ve struck something akin to television gold, it gets a bit closer to the mark.

Other morsels of information gleaned during the set visit might or might not qualify as spoilers, though if one is a fan of the show and wants to figure that stuff out, there’s maybe a million other places on the internet to find them. What spending a day with Royal Pains did more than anything is make clear that the people involved are as grateful for the success of the show as its fans are that they don’t have to suffer through a summer of shitty reruns and knockoffs of Japanese game shows.

Arriving in the midst of a global economic meltdown, Royal Pains somehow manages to remind even the most cynical among us that not everyone's money has gone up in flames. Sometimes that sort of escapism, especially festooned with bikinis and baubles and beachside scenes both real and imagined is exactly what we need to keep our chins up. 

It's ridiculous to heap that kind of pressure on a television show, especially one as fun and engaging as Royal Pains, but maybe they'll beep giving it to us all the same. With a bump up from 11 episodes to 18 in its second season, it might not matter that it's nothing more than a placebo delivered in absurd fashion by an all-around swell guy. And maybe it's enough to simply root for Feuerstein, a swell guy both on and off screen who deserves a bit of success for a change.