Tag Archives: Burn Notice

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

Mrs. Pucci, say it’s not too late for us!

Human Target is a TV action adventure series on Fox.  Last season it was all very "boy’s own."  Lots of fight scenes, stunts, mayhem, intrique and things blowing up.  For all the special effects it was, I thought, very credible TV with writing, acting, and directing vastly better than the genre normally elicits.  

But finally it was too boy’s own, which is to say all that daring-do got in the way of complexity or nuance or anything resembling the way human behave when they are not action heroes.

Clearly, someone at FOX said, "very well, let’s give the USA Networks treatment."  And this means taking a page from the resoundingly successful playbook created by Bonnie Hammer and making our male heroes actually interact with and sometimes depend upon the women in their lives.  Think of the girlfriend and mother in Burn Notice. The assistant and girl friend in Royal Pains.  The FBI jailor and girlfriend in White Collar. And mother, sister, boss, male assistant and boy friend in In Plain Sight.  (There are actually two versions of the Hammer strategy.  I discuss the official one in McCracken 2009 and the unofficial one in McCracken 2010.  See the links below.)

And it came to pass that two women were added to Human Target.  One of them was the Mrs. Pucci (pictured) played by Indira Varma (er, also pictured).  What a difference Mrs. Pucci makes!  In a graceful, elegant way she dismantles the genre, scene in and scene out. Now we really have no idea what’s happening next.  And while we are trying to puzzle out the character, we are treated to a great actress treating us to lots of nuance and subtlety.  

But hang on!  Bill Gorman reported yesterday that the numbers for Human Target were abysmal.  Not much better that Under Covers which is now down for cancellation.  My suggest we treat this as a new year’s eve resolution: defend Mrs. Pucci from cancellation!


Gorman, Bill.  2010.  The Numbers of Human Target. December 23.  click here.

McCracken, Grant. 2009.  The Hammer Grammar.  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  August 31.  Click here.

McCracken, Grant.  2010.  The secret script at USA Networks (aka the unmeshed male). This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  Feb. 5.  click here. 

Culture Contest: Showtime vs. USA Networks


The Big C, the new show starring the deeply talented Laura Linney gives us a glimpse of what is now possible on cable. It resembles a second show on Showtime, Weeds.

Together these shows give us a glimpse into the Showtime thinktank.  (One of the principles, apparently: let’s see what happens to suburban living when we mix things up.)

There is a another experiment at work at USA Networks, from which a string of hits has recently issued (Burn Notice, Psych, Royal Pains, White Collar).  (One of the principles, apparently, stay as far away from the suburbs as possible.)

Your essay question:

1. Compare and contrast Showtime and USA Networks.  Identify the grammar or algorithm that produces the shows in question.  (Consider my "suburb" reference a hint, but merely one very rough indicator of the possibilities.  Please do feel free to contradict me.)

2. What larger cultural significance do you attach to the fact that these two approaches to making TV now exist?  Did they exist in the 20th century.  Why do they exist now?


Fewer than 1000 words.

point form preferred.

points for being crisp and clear.

Contest winners

Contest winners will receive a Minerva (as pictured) and a place on the winner’s list.  (And immortality as a contest winner, of course. See the list of previous winners, by clicking here.) (Note: the Minerva used to be called the "VOWEL.")

Contest judges

Normally I do the judging for Minervas.  But this is a recipe for provincialism.  So I am invited several people to act as judges.  They are:

Rick Boyko, Director and Professor, VCU Brandcenter

Schuyler Brown, Skylab

Bryan Castañeda

Ana Domb

Mark Earls, author, Herd

Brad Grossman, Grossman and Partners

Christine W. Huang, PSFK, Huffington Post and Global Hue

Steve Postrel

Chief Culture Officer

This is precisely the kind of question I would expect a CCO to hit out of the park.  If you are having trouble with this question and fancy yourself CCO material, you are not watching enough TV.  (When spouses or colleagues complain, look them straight in the eye and say: "It’s doctor’s orders."  (Trust me, I’m an anthropologist.)

Previous Winners

Juri Saar (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Reiko Waisglass (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Brent Shelkey (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Daniel Saunders (for the "JJ Abrams vs. Joss Whedon" contest)

Tim Sullivan (for the "Karen Black vs. Betty White" contest?)

Calling all CCOs: how good is your gut?

Next week, Fox will launch a cop show called The Good Guys.  (It previews May 19th. The series starts June 7.)

Outwardly, things looks fine.  The producer is Matt Nix, who recently triumphed with Burn Notice. Its stars Colin Hanks and Bradley Whitford, able actors to be sure. Plus Fox is good at making good TV.  

But my gut says this show is going to be a stinker.  The Hollywood Reporter description:

[The show] centers on Jack (Hanks), an ambitious, by-the-book detective whose habit of undermining himself has resulted in a dead-end position at the Los Angeles Police Department. Worse, he has been partnered with Dan (Whitford), a drunken, lecherous, wild-card cop who hangs onto his job only because of a heroic act years before.

This made the eyes roll back in my head.  At a time when Modern Family is reinventing the family comedy, Burn Notice the spy story, and New Christine the situation comedy, this doesn’t sound promising.  My first warning: I got bored in the middle of the 15 second promotion.  

Of course this is why people hate bloggers.  We don’t do due diligence.  We just make shit up.  We don’t investigate or even think very hard.  We shoot from the hip. 

But exactly!  This is precisely the time to judge the show   Before we know the details, before we have seen an episode, before any diligence is done.  When all we know is the concept, this is the best, the only real, opportunity to see whether our instincts are good for anything. (Sometimes, that is to say, bloggers do the wrong thing for the right reason.  Hasty judgment in this case is due diligence.)

It’s also a chance to go on the record.  So I’m going on the record.  I believe this show will be a stinker.  I believe it will be so bad Fox won’t run the whole of the first season.

I hope I’m wrong.  Unlike Angie Tempura (above), I am not a sneering, know-it-all, blogger.  I wish this show well.  No one likes to see this much talent, money and risk go to waste.  

Please come join me.  I would especially like to hear from those who like the sound of the concept. 

Your comments please!


Andreeva, Nellie.  2009.  Colin Hanks Revs Up for Jack and Dan.  Hollywood Reporter. November 3.  here.  (subscription fee may be required)

For more on The Good Guys, check out the Fox cite here.  But, please, form a judgment first!

The Secret Script at USA Networks (aka the enmeshed male)

I know you have watched something on USA Networks.  After all, it’s a hit machine.  It has give us Burn Notice, Royal Pains, White Collar and In Plain Sight.  

Bonnie Hammer (pictured) is the woman in charge. Ms. Hammer has a formula and I accepted this as the secret of her success.

But a couple of days ago, I was thinking about these programs and I noticed a similarity I had not seen before

See if you do too.

Burn Notice is about a former spy who has been booted out of the intelligence community and must now rely on his best friend, his sometime girl friend, and often his mother to continue in a low rent of espionage.

Royal Pains is about a doctor who was drummed out of his prestigious job as a New York City surgeon and must now rely on his brother, his girlfriend and a rich fella to eck out of living as a concierge doctor, low rent medicine indeed.

White Collar is about a jewel thief who has been fished out of jail by the FBI and can now do nothing on his own without the approval of his handler.  He still gets up to crime but it’s now a far cry from the old days of a glamorous thief.

In Plain Sight is about a woman who works as Witness Relocation sheriff and because she, her mother, her sister are emotional train wrecks of one kind or another, she manages only with the help of her long suffering partner, her boss, her secretary and her boyfriend.

See a pattern?  It is most clear in the case of the first three shows.  A man riding high is brought low.  He now survives by dint of his wits and only because he relies on people he never relied on before.  This man is now thoroughly enmeshed in a small group of friends and relatives. Without them he is nothing.

Ok, let’s say you’re Monni Adams, of the Peabody Museum at Harvard.  Professor Adams is famous for having detected and then explained patterns in Indonesian textiles.  Explain, please, why this new pattern is so much in evidence in these USA Network shows.

What is happening in American culture that might help explain this new vision of our masculinity?  After all, American culture has long been home to a notion of the unconstrained, rogue male.  Consider all those tradtional TV heroes and movie stars, men who answered to no one.  Why a new pattern? Why an enmeshed male?

Usual rules apply.  Best answer gets a copy of Chief Culture Officer.  Forgive me if I am a little slow getting to my "grading."  It is easier to stage these contests than to adjudicate them.


McCracken, Grant. 2009.  The Hammer Grammer.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  August 31.  here.