Burn Notice and Royal Pains returned with new seasons last night. Shown back-to-back, they tend to get lumped together as light summer fare, “characters welcome” — you know the hype. The thing is, they’re very different shows, as their new-season premieres proved.
This season’s Burn Notice has already taken a dark turn, and for the better, I think. The frayed emotions displayed by Jeffrey Donovan’s Michael Westen last night befit a man who’s grown somewhat bitter and weary over that never-ending burn notice.
In last night’s resolution to last season’s cliffhanger, we saw that Michael had been snatched up by Vaughn (Robert Wisdom), a CIA man who now wants to persuade our hero to work with him in a reinstated spook role to help the very agency that burned Michael. Now, Michael’s possible reentry into his old profession — canceling the “burn notice” that gave the series its reason for being — seems within his grasp. The result of all this? A changed Michael, a man who actually cried with his mom (Sharon Gless) over his past, and who, in something of a shocker in the first episode, ended up burning an agent himself.
Even the action scenes with Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and Sam (Bruce Campbell) had an edgier edge than usual. I know that Burn Notice will never stray entirely away from its more frolicsome aspects, and no one wants it to: All those light-comedy scenes and wry, informative spy-Michael voice-overs are a big part of the series’ charm. At the same time, I liked the new intensity, and hope the series can continue to juggle both tones adroitly.
Meanwhile, Royal Pains was back for a second season that’s been fine-tuned just enough to remind you why you liked these characters while adding enough new problems to prevent this souffle-light show from disappearing.
Pains, created by Andrew Lenchewski and John P. Rogers, has pleasingly unusual rhythms for what looks, on paper (on laptop screen?), like just another quirky medical show. It’s most interested in the relationships between its main characters, in their conversations and their emotional temperatures. It sidles into its weekly plots in the most casual, offhand manner possible. If you were describing last night’s hour to a friend, I doubt you’d start off with, “Well, Hank had to solve the medical problems of this infomercial celebrity who kept injuring himself,” even though that was indeed what the primary medical crisis was.
Instead, the hour spent a lot of time establishing just how much Hank dislikes his estranged father (Henry Winkler, a series regular this season and very welcome indeed, as soon as his character recovers from being clocked on the kisser by Hank in the closing seconds of this episode). And also how much Hank’s brother Evan (Paulo Costanzo) wants to maintain contact with Dad. And there was also the fact that HankMed is in financial trouble. And Divya (Reshna Shetty) had to discuss with Evan why she got engaged at the end of last season. And Jill (Jill Flint) had to face down a mean surgeon (Marcia Gay Harden, another welcome new addition) determined to oust her. And I don’t even know how Royal Pains even had time to reestablish the mysterious medical condition of one of Hank’s first patients, Boris (Campbell Scott, looking a lot more hale and hearty than his character in Damages, thank goodness), but the producers managed to work in some nice brief scenes of dialogue between Hank and Boris, too.
As I said: There’s more to Royal Pains than sunny skies and light patter. Like Burn Notice, it gives USA’s “characters welcome” slogan some weight.
Did you watch either of these shows? What did you think?