Even though the show's first episode is 75 minutes long with commercials, the pilot doesn't feel padded. It smoothly -- almost too quickly, in fact -- set up the crisis that precipitates therapist Dr. Dani Santino's move into the field of sports therapy. And it's interesting to note that on the network known for its "Characters welcome" tagline, Dani really isn't quirky or odd in any noticeable way.
She's a strong-willed, upper-middle class woman whose life begins to fall apart, and it's the unsentimental way in which Dani moves forward that gives this show its necessary grit.
The tricky thing about USA shows is giving their breezy premises enough substance to keep them interesting. Part of the reason I can't quite lock on to the inoffensive 'Royal Pains' (which returns 9PM ET Wednesday) or the sludgy 'Covert Affairs' is because there isn't enough there there. The relationships or dilemmas of the main characters just don't have a compelling heft or weight to them. Despite their breezy tones, 'Burn Notice' and 'White Collar,' on the other hand, often revolve around emotionally fraught situations that give each show's weekly formula an extra boost of ambiguity and tension.
'Necessary Roughness,' which has Dani (Thorne) going to work as a therapist for a fictional NFL team called the Hawks, is a little too pat in places, but Thorne manages to make her character both feisty and believably vulnerable, and the show's cast is generally excellent. The usual caveat is that I have no idea if this show will be enjoyable past the pilot, but the first episode was good enough to warrant another look or two.
Though she's wowed by the amount of money and luxury in the world of pro sports, Dani's not inclined to coddle players or tell members of the Hawks organization what they want to hear. She holds her own against the aggressive Hawks coach, who just wants his star player to get his head back in the game, and it's refreshing that the show doesn't shy away from the reality that teams want to keep players in top form because they're lucrative assets, not necessarily because they're human beings who may need help.
Dani's big challenge in the opening episode is dealing with the Hawks' star player, Terrence King (Mechad Brooks), whose bravado unsurprisingly covers up a host of personal issues. And it's in TK's story that the show shows signs of both weakness and strength. Without giving away too much, the scenes in which Dani refused to coddle TK and yet manages to create a connection with him are very well played by both Thorne and Brooks. The problem is, Dani's actual insights aren't all that insightful.
Whether that superficiality is derived from the fact that the pilot is preoccupied with other matters or whether it's due to the fact that the the psychological foundations of this show are slight and predictable remains to be seen. If the problem falls in the latter arena and the show consists of Dani peeking behind the ego of the sports star of the week, that could be a significant problem for 'Necessary Roughness.'
But in this first episode, the crisp pace and good performances keep things moving in an enjoyable way, for the most part. Oddly enough, the most interesting character on the show usually can't be found near the Astro Turf: Scott Cohen does terrific work as Nico, the team's fixer. His job is to keep players out of trouble (or to cover up trouble when it occurs), and his enigmatic reserve and quiet resolve makes him a potentially more compelling love interest for Dani than the team's appealing but bland trainer, Matthew (Mark Blucas). There are some more or less useless characters scattered around the periphery, but, in fairness to the show, it didn't have time to make Dani's best friend, her two teenagers and her mother much more than one-dimensional stick figures.
'Necessary Roughness' clearly doesn't aspire to be 'In Treatment' and it certainly isn't 'Friday Night Lights,' but Dani is a scrapper with her own array of self-doubts, and it appears that this role will give Thorne much more of a chance to show her range than 'Rescue Me' ever did. But to use the inevitable sports analogies, one win does not a season make.
The 'Necessary Roughness' pilot was enjoyable enough, but half the fun may have come from seeing Dani's adjustment to the big money, high-stakes world of professional sports. Can this show go the distance? It isn't clear yet, but at this admittedly early stage, the latest addition to the USA roster appears to be a promising rookie.
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