Royal Pains premiered in 2009, and in many ways it stands as the exemplar of the (possible) USA Network genre. It uses the formula of Burn Notice and reproduces much of its form through similarly glossy cinematography of their respective vacation settings, the Hamptons and Miami. Moreover, USA wisely chose to market Royal Pains as heir to the Burn Notice throne. The selected clip is one of USA’s early ads for the show and features Michael Westen (Jeffery Donovan), protagonist of Burn Notice, explaining through voice-over the similarities between his situation and that of Royal Pains’s Hank Lawson (Mark Feuerstein). Westen is essentially explaining the USA Network formula. Its formula is part of its brand.
I argue, however, that USA Network has created a genre, extending beyond the Burn Notice formula and aesthetic as its brand. Royal Pains exemplifies this genre, but its corpus also includes White Collar, In Plain Sight, and--by early accounts--Covert Affairs. In terms of Rick Altman’s "semantic/syntactic" approach to genre, the syntactic genre characteristics of USA's original programming includes the formula: central character dismissed from/unable to pursue lucrative/traditional form of their job for bureaucratic/nefarious/mysterious reasons, chooses instead to help people/earn a living outside or ancillary to "the law" (a variation: pursues traditional form of job in untraditional ways that make them both good at their job but forever in conflict with reigning authority). Semantic generic characteristics include: glossy cinematography of underutilized-on-television locale, a central character who is almost impossibly competent, generic self-consciousness, and especially an overall humorous tone despite dire plot circumstances. A USA Network show knows that it is summer escapist television and plays with that conceit.
But perhaps the true test of my argument for a USA Network genre is whether or not it moves beyond the boundaries of brand. Can a "USA" show air on another network? Time will tell as we see how saturated or enduring the formula-cum-brand becomes, but TNT’s Leverage appears as a contender. Though it began airing in December 2008, it’s often described as a "summer series," and it certainly borrows heavily from the success of USA’s original programming like Burn Notice. Is it merely an outlier or an early example of the USA Network genre?
Author's blog: cehowell.wordpress.com
USA Network brand
Great piece. Some of the semantic generic characteristics you include are also reflected in Monk and Psych. I see Monk as the first attempt to articulate and shape the USA brand, but the later series, especially Burn Notice and White Collar, are high gloss and sexy in ways that Monk and Psych could never be.
Interesting too that USA has a staggered season. New episodes of Burn Notice began airing in June and the new season of Psych starts this week. While on the one hand this gives USA series a unique news niche away from the traditional broadcast season, it also facilitates a sense of made-for-summer TV that makes locations like Miami, the Hamptons, and Psych's Santa Barbara (although filmed in Canada) particularly appealing.
Terrific start to the week
Terrific piece, Charlotte.
This is especially interesting since USA has avoided franchising itself (a la CBS) into a procedural network with various spin-offs, instead riffing on their "blue skies"/procedural formula/genre in stylish ways.
As for Leverage as an example of the genre getting away from the network, I think that's certainly workable, though its emphasis on its ensemble as a unit goes against USA's individual exceptionalism streak. Perhaps this is the next part of the USA genre cycle?
Network as Genre
There’s such an intriguing set of terms and relationships here: channel, brand, genre, franchise. Piecing out how those elements operate in the cableverse today across programming and marketing would make for a great article. It’s also fun to think of HBO as precursor, not in terms of show style, of course, but in terms of network branding meshing with convention (even when that convention is unconvention). I picture a promo with Tony Soprano explaining the "it’s not TV" concept to McNulty.
Wonderful piece, Charlotte - I had never really considered the USA formula as genre specifically (perhaps because, being located in Canada, I've never actually experienced the network's programming on the network itself, limiting my engagement with the "brand" in context), but I realized when reading your piece that I had done so subconsciously. When Royal Pains first premiered, I was skeptical of how closely it mirrored Burn Notice, but my concerns over a lack of originality didn't really affect my response to White Collar, or to the upcoming Covert Affairs, so I've come to accept the role formula plays in the network's identity.
To add to the connection between brand and formula, the "Characters Welcome" slogan the network has used over the past few years is meant to differentiate the kind of shows which appear on USA vs. those which appear on other networks, and it specifically uses its characters (who are inherently linked to the premise and formula of each show) as that factor. I think part of USA's success is that they do not sell their formula directly, emphasizing instead the range of characters who populate those formulas and provide some level of diversity (both within the stable of series and when compared to network dramas or comedies).
My one question, I guess, is what we do with Psych: the show is clearly familiar as a USA series, with its sunny locale and its procedural elements, but the series is much more broad than the comedy offered within the network's other series. As the network moves further towards a more drama-oriented lineup (Psych and Monk, the "originals," are the only recent USA series classed as comedies), will Psych be pressured to more fully engage its dramatic elements, or will it simply remain an outlier until (like Monk) it reaches its logical endpoint and the network moves on from there?
Really great piece,
Really great piece, Charlotte. It's certainly interesting whether or not this potential genre can exist outside of the USA Network. On the one hand, its successful formula would certainly be tempting for other networks to try. However, even if it is its own genre, it's still heavily tied to the USA brand, which could lead to confusion other networks might want to avoid.
Also, I want to mention Touching Evil, as I think it's also an important part in USA establishing its genre/brand, but in a different way than these shows. It certainly follows the formula (of pursuing the traditional job in an unconventional way), and it even starred Jeffrey Donovan, clearly an important figure in the brand as evidenced by your clip. However, it is markedly darker than any of their current shows (in both tone and lighting), as any show about hunting serial criminals would be. I imagine its ultimate failure influenced the direction USA took their shows, as they realized that lighter shows make for better summer fare.
For a while, USA's original programming was more in line with the darkness of Touching Evil; The Dead Zone and The 4400 were both fairly serious in tone. Moreover, around the time they rebranded with "Characters Welcome" (2005) the network heavily promoted its reruns of Law and Order and SVU. Barring perhaps Weird Science, I think Psych was it's first comedy hit (I just can't consider Monk a straight comedy in the way Psych is; Monk is too sad and emotionally affective).
The one thing I can add is
The one thing I can add is that to some extent, I think USA has taken over some of the characteristics of first-run syndication programming of the '90s. Renegade was about an ex-cop working outside the law (with a tragic past, yet) while shows like V.I.P. and She Spies, among many others, tried to make fun of themselves while delivering all the campy light-action the viewers expected.
There were differences between those shows and the USA product, which is more upscale in production values and content (Burn Notice carefully inserts shots of bikini-clad extras into every episode, but is careful not to gain the reputation of a Baywatch-style skin show). But with the collapse of that market, USA essentially took it upon itself to split the difference between the disreputable pleasures of first-run syndication and the more outwardly respectable world of modern cable.
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