Good, bad and wonderful at USA Network

USA Network is an answer to the question: what would TV look like if it were made by women?  It is more emotionally interesting, more socially complex, more embedded in the world. It’s about character, and, yes, characters, and, here and there, it’s now in danger of jumping the shark.

If there were any doubt about the USA Network contribution to TV, it was removed by the recent launch of Necessary Roughness (Wednesday 10:00).  This follows in the tradition of Fairly Legal.  Both feature women as professional mediators who step into conflict and make talk do the work of confrontation.  Good writing flourishes.  Good acting flourishes.  TV gets better.

But there is trouble.  Just as USA Network goes from strength to strength, some of the workhorses are failing.  I looked in on Burn Notice and Royal Pains this week and both are in danger of turning mechanical. The formula is showing.  Disbelief is getting harder to suspend.  In Royal Pains we can now see plot points coming a long way off, and the moments of urgency (a medical crisis of some kind) are now entirely paint by number and they leave this viewer wondering if I’ve got time to go make a sandwich.  Burn Notice is still worse. The music comes up and people spring! into! action!, yelling, shouting, and blowing things up.  And I think, “oh, definitely. I have time to make a sandwich and a blended beverage.”  

This is perhaps a programming problem.  Perhaps there is a constituency that will not tune in unless they get high drama and big explosions.  They will sit through the dialogue and character(s) development, but that’s not why they’re there.  You need to blow stuff up.

So now the creative challenge for CEO Bonnie Hammer is this: how to combined old-fashioned TV with new-fashioned TV in a manner that pleases the traditional constituency without making a more sophisticated constituency roll their eyes and think about sandwiches.  One solution perhaps is to somehow make the drama and dialogue more seamless, to make them interpenetrating. Otherwise the action feels like a commercial break (and in a sense it is). 

But not to worry.  Suits (tonight on USA Networks at 10:00) is flat out wonderful.  It is crafted, embedded, and (so far) unformed.  And the performance by Patrick J. Adams as Mike Ross has on several occasions left me speechless.  Actually, it moved me to say to Pam with muttered astonishment, “is this kid good or what?”  To which she replied, if memory serves, “Amazingly.”

Ok, so we need some dialogue coaching at our house.  Or we can just keep watching USA Network.


McCracken, Grant.  2009.  The Hammer Grammer: how to make culture.  This Blog.  Aug. 31.  Click here

8 thoughts on “Good, bad and wonderful at USA Network

  1. Rick Liebling

    There must be some law or rule, perhaps we could call it the Rule of David (after Simon & Milch) that says: “Series quality is inversely proprotionate to series length.”

    The trick is to know when to wrap it up, and it’s always better to do so earlier than later.

  2. arvind

    I think a hidden problem here is an artifact of linear TV: needing everyone to watch the same shows at the same time. If everything is Hulu-ified or Netflix-ed (and there are a few things like live sports that will never be) one doesn’t have to try and please everyone. The TV time-band fractures, and lets everyone occupy what shows and times they will. Note that books and games don’t have this problem (at least, not to such a remarkable extent).

    If only the TV & movie industry would get off their licensing and DRM high horses they’d find their job a lot, lot easier

  3. Grace Hughston

    Grant, I love to hear of another avid fan of USA Network disappointed with the turn of Burn Notice and excited for the new shows showing more character depth and less corny lines with explosions.
    Rick, well said!

    1. Grant Post author

      Grace, thanks, I saw the Burn Notice for this week, and it was better. Letting the actors out of their confinement will surely help. Best, Grant

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  5. Matt

    For every original show on USA that shows “character depth” and “originality”, there’s an even better one on AMC.

    1. Grant Post author

      Matthew, this is a very interesting argument, I finally got a chance to see Breaking Bad and I can see what you mean. This would make an excellent Minerva question. May I have your permission to use it as such? Best, Grant

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