There are interesting shows that cable TV launches in the doldrums of summer (The Closer), and there are awful ones (Franklin & Bash). I’ve learned over the last few years that what will turn out to be an entertaining 44 minutes is not always discernible on first viewing—Suits seemed a little weak to me at first, but it quickly dialed down the melodramatic friend relationship story arc, and focused on its strength, the undertold story about new attorney associates and their rat race in big law firms. As a replacement during the hiatus of The Good Wife, Suits is no slacker. But I want to talk instead about a show for which I had low expectations, a show with a title that refers to a movie of yore that I love, and that I thought would have something to do with the plot, and a show that earned its respect from me. I’m talking about Necessary Roughness on USA. Turns out, it’s a long meditation on masculinity. A fascinating, thoughtful meditation at that.
Spoilers from here on out, after the jump.
Dani Santino (played by Callie Thorn) is a Long Island therapist who, mere minutes into the pilot, discovers her husband having an affair, and so it is that we’re set up for her need to make enough money to support herself and her two teenage children. Nothing new here so far, right? Except that Dani is totally Longuyland in accent, affect, and fashion, and yet there are no gangsters or real housewife dramatics, and no addictions to tanning booths. Plus one for the New Jersey/New York character who isn’t like the stereotypes of those other shows. There isn’t a lot that’s interesting to the unfaithful spouse storyline—we’ve seen it all before—but it gives a decent context for her relationship to her children. The real strength of the show is in her work with the rich but troubled professional athletes in the NYC metropolitan area, of which there are many.
A football player trapped by his compulsion for even numbers, a golfer wracked by guilt over his friend’s alcoholism, a celebrity jock who blows every boundary because he subconsciously wants some placed on him, what NR keeps pointing to is the failure of late capitalism to provide any emotional foundation for men to process through their childhood trauma or their adult stress. Sure, most of Dani’s cases are wrapped up in one episode, but how could I begrudge this show that plot simplicity when I’ve allowed it for Murder, She Wrote, Law & Order, and Grey’s Anatomy? Yes, there’s some watering down about how therapy works, but for a show ostensibly about mental illness and wellness, NR provides a non-sensationalized approach that actually deconstructs popular notions about DSM diagnosed people as lazy or weak. That’s part of why Dani is so appealing—every week she makes points to her clients and to her bosses (she works primarily for the head coach of a professional football team, played to the hilt by Gregory Alan Williams) about rethinking why emotional stumbling blocks come up for people.
I appreciate seeing people of color in non-drug-related roles; in watching male characters resist and then open up to talking about their feelings. I’m not saying NR is some revolutionary text. Far from it—these are high performance athletes who are seeking to keep open their access to their sport, and to some degree, their incomes, reputations, and whatever glory comes from those things. The show is not reinventing manhood, or anything else for that matter, but in its ability to allow for the idea that masculinity shuts down men, I find it helpful as a model for other narratives. Further, it’s not Dani’s femininity that unravels these mens’ traumas, it’s her adherence to her rational, professional training. I’m grateful the show hasn’t made us pay for this lens into the poverty of masculinity with some sell out strategy of her whipping her hair around to fix them.
One of the longer character story arcs revolves around the figure of Terrence King (played with great nuance by Mehcad Brooks), a Michael Irvin-type overhyped receiver who too often drops the ball but doesn’t want to talk about it. All season long we’ve been watching his two steps forward, one step back progress, and again, I appreciate getting to see behind the public persona and into his insecurities and neuroses about himself. He continually has broken boundaries with Dani, going so far as to buy her son a new car when he tells TK it was stolen. Dani puts her foot down, citing her professional responsibility and ethics, and this is translated to the coach as “We have our play book, she has hers.” It’s a careful explanation of what happens all the time in therapy: transference and boundary breaking. For all of the therapists on television, all of the police procedurals that give us bad shrinks who sleep with or kill their clients (I’m looking at you, Criminal Intent and Law & Order: SVU), Necessary Roughness seems much more honest.
Now that Dani has told TK he can’t be her client until he learns to respect her boundaries, but that she wants to see him be well and happy, he’s gone off to hire his own life coach, and I wish the show didn’t cast them in such a bad light because hey, I have a life coach and she is amazing. But what’s interesting here is how said life coach (in a great guest spot by Orlando Jones) is all about pushing his clients’ masculine power. So it is that the season finale of NR will be a showdown over the limits of masculinity. I can’t wait to watch that.