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by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
ROYAL PAINS (2009-2016), though a limited summer series on the USA Network, was a noteworthy television show because of its longevity and popularity, and because of its Jewish themes, its odd take on Jewish manhood -- and womanhood. (Episodes are all available through your favorite on-demand conveyor.)
When we meet Dr. Henry “Hank” Lawson (Mark Feuerstein), he is being fired from a prestigious New York emergency room for choosing to save a low-income, young black man over a non-resuscitative hospital donor. Hank becomes reclusive in his depression and loses his fiancée. He is rescued by his younger brother, Evan (Paulo Costanzo), who has the notion that they can open a concierge medical practice in the Hamptons.
Evan is ambitious and entrepreneurial but impulsive, insensitive, imprudent -- basically good, but willing to be honest or dishonest depending on what is good for business. They are joined by others, especially Divya (elegantly played by Rechma Shetty), a medical associate from India. Their major patient and benefactor, Boris (Campbell Scott) is a mysterious globe-trotting German billionaire who puts his mansion at the brothers’ disposal.
At first the viewer wonders a bit about Hank. If he is so principled, why did he choose the Hamptons instead of, say, a city clinic? How principled is the concierge approach to medical services? The question is raised in an early episode in which a senator’s son is examined by Hank because the lad’s mom is concerned about “privacy.”
EARLY ON, the series drops a sprinkling of Jewish-sounding names, mostly male, such as Mr. Kleiner, who does not honor a pledge to a free clinic; Gary Pestotnick (play on “pest”?), described as having stolen investments from “insanely famous” people and being the one who “single-handedly brought the word ‘scoundrel’ back into everyday use”; and Howard Katz, an investor whom Evan wants to kill for losing his money. There are also the men of the billionaire Boris’s formidable Israeli security staff. Boris, although not Jewish, speaks Hebrew with them, using the term, “b’seder” (“okay”) -- and they speak Hebrew among themselves.
Russell Berger (Stephen Spinella), a pretentious antique dealer insistent on the French pronunciation of his name, becomes the employer of Evan’s future wife, Paige (Brooke D’Orsay). He shows compassion for a woman who has to part with beloved Chagall painting for financial reasons, and he waives his commission to ensure that Evan buys Paige an artwork dear to her heart. He also describes an associate as a “yente mouth.”
Hank’s former high school bully, Ken Keller (Michael B. Silver), used to steal Hank’s lunch money and lunch, and once punched him in the nose. He uses Yiddish expressions, favoring vulgarity, as when he asks Hank about his new house: “Did you pick this stuff out yourself, or did you shtup some interior designer?” Hank has fantasized punching Keller and then getting to realign his nose. An agent for celebrities, Keller is stressed out because a young associate is doing what he himself used to do, namely, stealing clients. Ken risks his health by taking steroids to bulk up for a photo with his sports clients; he admires Hank’s lack of obligations and worries; he negotiates for Hank at the local hospital by sleeping with the female CEO.
All of these are plausible if appalling paradigms of Jewish manhood for 21st century TV. For the first season, I was thinking: Sure, Hank and Evan have issues, but why not make them talented and ambitious young Jewish men working on their faults and growing in their strengths? Could the self-confident, skilled, creative, thoughtful, smart, handsome, athletic Hank Lawson become a positive Jewish paradigm for TV manhood?
From the beginning the brothers did use Yiddish expressions, but it’s in the second season that the brothers are indeed given a Jewish identity, albeit in a stereotypical way, when a professional wrestler turned movie actor, Donnie, of whom Evan is a great fan, becomes a patient. When Donnie quips that he’s in the market for a new faith, Evan tells him, “Really, have you considered Judaism? Because we can use someone your size.” Donnie’s sister Faith tells the brothers, “We really can’t thank you guys enough, even though as far as dysfunctional siblings go, you give us a run for our money.”
Also in that season we met Hank’s and Evan’s deeply flawed Jewish father, Eddie (Henry Winkler), who abandoned his sons and their mother when she was dying of cancer. The first thing Hank does when he sees his father, much to Evan’s (and everyone else’s) horror, is to knock him down with a punch. (This from a man who had refrained from punching his old bully Ken.) Hank will consistently describe Eddie as “the guy who walked out on us” and “the guy who served time.” Later, the brothers find out they have a sister fathered by Eddie, who had no idea.
Yet the series seems to advocate giving second chances. Eddie helps his former prison mate, Shaw, who “reminds me of me at his age -- confident, cocky, ambitious, missing the point.” But Eddie keeps backsliding badly, even cruelly, eventually stealing from his sons and selling out their patron.
For a while Hank pushes himself to see patients with the help of pain-killers he finagled while everyone misdiagnosed the curable condition of this genius diagnostician. When Eddie finds out he warns: “You boys have the genetic predisposition [to addiction]....Well, my problem was never with substances. My addiction is to embellishment….Years ago I had a tiny problem with compulsive lying. See, there I go again, because it wasn’t so tiny.”
THE SERIES goes further into nastiness with the Jewish grandfather, Ted Roth (Ed Asner), a “local big shot” on the Florida coast. Roth (who changed the family name to Lawson) was the First Abandoner, but agrees to sponsor his son Eddie for home parole detention if Eddie allows him to meet his grandsons Hank and Evan. “You know how I didn’t want you… to come down here?” he tells them. “Let me just say that I’m really glad disobedience runs in our family. I’ve been on my own so long I thought I didn’t need anybody.” Roth had regarded the brothers’ mother as a golddigger, but now understands that she really loved family.
Given this background, it is understandable that there is something robotic about the brothers, though Hank can show great tenderness to patients and friends, especially to a blind girlfriend, and Evan does have many bursts of compassion and goodness. The nicest scenes are between the brothers, as when Hank acknowledges: “Without you, Evan, I wouldn’t have this new life….And I took way too long to acknowledge all that.” Still, the producers and writers do give the Lawson brothers a cold if not arrogant edge. A colleague with mild Asberger’s Syndrome, Dr. Jeremiah Sacani (Ben Schenkman), is a more sympathetic character and strives to be empathic even when he must ask others how to deal with feelings. (We are not told Sacani’s ethnic background.)
Despite its charm and cleverness, rather unlikable characters and a nasty Jewish family history are perpetuated in this series by likable actors and engaging medical mysteries. The Jewish men need gentile women to redeem them and to break them from their “genetic predisposition” to bitterness and anger and abandonment. Divya, Paige, and Jill (a hospital administrator who is Hank’s main love interest) are kind and redemptive. Evan will tell his father, Eddie, that only because of his marriage to Paige has he learned to listen and to learn. Evan adds, with an “I love you, mazl tov,” the hope that Eddie’s marriage to a Mrs. Newberg (Christine Ebersole), once married to a Jewish man from whom she took her last name, will “bring you the same.” Yet what lingers is Evan’s declaration to his father, who had previously left Mrs. Newberg at the altar because of health fears, “Mazl tov….Paige and I are trying to start our own family….My first promise will be to never let you near enough to hurt or disappoint our child.”
As regards the brothers’ deceased mom, Hank confides in an actor observing him that his mother was “amazing” and died way too young, but that she had high expectations and pushed Hank hard. When Eddie left, she pushed Hank even harder. She had been disappointed by one man in her life, and wasn’t about to let Hank follow in Eddie’s footsteps.
Hank says that his mother wasn’t perfect but that Evan thinks so, and that Hank wants to protect that memory for Evan and for himself. Evan and Hank meet at their mother’s grave, placing stones on it, a traditional sign of the respect of having visited. When Evan says that she was the perfect mom, Hank does not argue, but even agrees, for Evan’s sake. (6-18-15, Burge) Yet in the very last episode Evan jokes: “I thought I was the neurotic Jewish mother here,” as Paige worries about their future baby.
Did Royal Pains define Jewish manhood as the romanticization of Jewish womanhood so that the sons can get along with each other and move on from the sins of the fathers and grandfathers -- and of the mothers? Are Jewishness and Jewish manhood to be understood is this series as overcoming such dysfunction? At one point Hank does tell a patient: “I get wanting to distance yourself from your dad’s legacy. Believe me, I do.”
Or is Jewish manhood about looking for bigger guys (like Donnie the wrestler/actor) to join the tribe? Or about being ignorant of Christianity? When Evan is asked to do a reading at a funeral for colleague’s rabbit, he asks Hank: “Who is Thessalonians, anyway?” Hank responds: “I have no idea.”
Or is Jewish manhood about being uncomfortable with, or getting shot in the buttock while hunting with Paige’s senator father? In many ways, that scene is definitive to the series: Royal Pains kicks Jewish manhood in the backside.
Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for thirty-five years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.