The blue skies of USA are darkening as the network that built itself on smart, fun summer programming copes with increased competition from all sides. Two new dramas debuting Thursday night fit much more in the industry-wide equation of "successful" with "gritty," focusing on the churning shadowy gap between appearance and reality.
"Satisfaction" is by far the better of the two, though the pilot occasionally pulls a hamstring while performing the contortions necessary to set up its story line. Which is, to be fair, a bit of a tough sell: Neil Truman (Matt Passmore), a middle-aged man with all the trappings of a happy life, can't understand why there is no joy. And so he becomes a high-rate prostitute.
If this sounds a bit like an aspirational version of HBO's "Hung," well, it is. And it isn't. The male-escort twist is not an economic solution here, nor is it a joke. Instead, creator Sean Jablonski uses it to widen, and examine, a big crack in what he sees as the Potemkin village of modern (which is to say white, straight, upper-middle class) life.
The pilot outlines this village remarkably well, capturing the too-busy-to-be-fulfilled nature of a decades-long marriage and high-pressure careers without resorting to caricature. Neil is a financial advisor who has sacrificed intimacy with his wife and daughter for "success" only to find that handling other people's money has become a bore while his wife, Grace (Stephanie Szostak), is the supportive spouse who has accepted what she cannot change.
Or maybe not. After Neil has his own I'm-mad-as-hell moment before ditching a business trip, he discovers Grace has been rebelling too — with another man. In one of the better "that was my WIFE" smack-downs, it is revealed that Grace is not having an affair, exactly; she has hired an escort, the refreshingly level-headed Simon (Blair Redford), who for reasons necessitated to get this show going, gives Neil his jacket complete with cellphone.
Roiling with anger, payback and curiosity, Neil begins answering the phone and then servicing Simon's clients, only to discover (can it be true?) that he likes it. Not just the sex but the sense of adventure and personal power. (There is no point arguing here that empowered prostitutes exist almost entirely in the imagination of screenwriters.)
"Satisfaction" is not, however, a modern male version of "The Happy Hooker." At its best, it's a well-acted, surprisingly clear-eyed look at the inconsistent relationship between passion and enduring love, and the innovative ways in which people bend their own rules to accommodate their need for pleasure.
At its worse, it's a morally and narratively contrived excuse to watch a very entitled Everyman navigate a world of rich but unhappy women, including his own wife and daughter. The supporting players, including Redford and Katherine LaNasa as a delicious high-profile madam, are promising, but Neil can be as smug as he is seeking. Whether what he finds changes that is the show's biggest challenge.
"Rush," on the other hand, is quite content to color within the lines drawn by many other shows. William Rush (Tom Ellis) is a coke-snorting, shot-swilling, brilliant-but-self-destructive doctor who, after having his medical license suspended, now acts as a freelance physician to L.A.'s troubled elite. So kind of like "House" crossed with "Ray Donovan" without the humor, pathos and terrific acting of both those shows.
Not that the actors are to blame. Ellis does his level brooding best, Sarah Habel percolates nicely as his good-hearted assistant Eve; Larenz Tate suffers as Alex, Rush's much put-upon best friend, and Odette Annable promises a new and better life as Sarah, his ex-girlfriend who is moving back to L.A.
Unfortunately, creator Jonathan Levine ("Warm Bodies") seems content with making minimal tweaks to other people's characters, putting them in fairly standard "morally ambiguous" situations — in the pilot, Rush deals with a sports star who batters his girlfriends and, of course, a drug lord — relying on a bass-heavy soundtrack to keep it all moving.
"Rush" hits all its notes with a solidity often known as stomping — Love trumps all pain and Rush must change his ways — and while it does offer another version of USA's other freelance-doc drama "Royal Pains," this concept actually doesn't look better in black.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and sex)
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)
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