Westen Meets Lawson: Formula as Brand and the Potential of a USA Network Genre

Curator's Note

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


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. 


I definitely think Monk was the turning point for USA.  As a "dramedy" it helped transition the network from more serious fare like The Dead Zone and The 4400 to the balance of dramatic stories within a light frame that Burn Notice nailed.  Psych premiered in 2006, and I agree also fits some of the characteristics; I consider Psych USA's first hit comedy in this cycle as it make "breezy" an acceptable overarching tone for its summer shows.  

I'll be talking a bit more about the sense of "made-for-summer TV" which defines the network's offerings and the potential problems therein, so huzzah for connectivity.

However, while I'll talk more about the fall/winter/summer component of the network's schedule, I want to talk a bit about the "night of the week" scheduling, as I think it's one of the ways in which the network is expanding and evolving its formula. The ability to use one series as a lead-in to another is a key factor on most networks, and USA used to rely on it exclusively (Monk leading into Psych, Burn Notice into Royal Pains, etc.) This fall/winter, though, the network spread things out, airing White Collar, Burn Notice and Psych on separate nights. Now, this summer has them pairing White Collar/Covert Affairs, and Burn Notice/Royal Pains, while Psych can stand on its own (as it has to, with the network's other comedy (Monk) off the air). Perhaps anticipating Covert Affairs coming down the pipeline, they chose to allow White Collar to start a new "night" of programming early on, making this transition more natural (and dividing up their formula into nightly blocks with thematic or aesthetic ties).

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?

Thanks, Noel.

I agree that USA seems to have found a way to make itself a clear brand in creating a genre of show instead of a set of franchises.  As to Leverage I think it's an interesting example to ponder because it lacks something (or many things) that make the USA shows both critically and popularly successful.  I think there's a lot ensemble work in USA shows that isn't emphasized.  While the shows revolve around one individual, USA shows are very careful to create a full, strong cast of characters that create a kind of solar system of characters: the sun (Westen, Lawson, Shawn Spencer, Neal Caffery, etc.) is the most important, but the whole wouldn't exist without the other parts, the planets that orbit that sun (Fi, Sam, and Maddie on Burn Notice; Evan and Divia on Royal Pains).  While the emphasis is on exceptional individuals, it's clear that without the supporting characters, the individual would be unable to fulfil his or her exceptional potential.  This is what Leverage both gets right and wrong in terms of the USA Network genre.  Leverage understands the supporting characters as foundation and as keys to unlocking one's ability to be their best self, but the show doesn't quite grasp and execute the fullness of those characters seen on USA.  Whereas Fiona Glenanne might appear to be a type more than a character on paper, Burn Notice does well to make her more rounded than her fellow enforcer-with-a-heart-of-gold, Elliot, on Leverage.

Leverage lacks that creative cohesion which is a hallmark of the USA brand.  It's missing that Bonnie Hammer factor -- the sense that the big problems were ironed out before the pilot was filmed.  It wants to be a light and breezy caper with broad characters, but also wants us to be invested in the grimly serious ripped-from-the-headlines Injustice of the Week.  Whereas Burn Notice is fairly graceful with the help-the-little-guy segues, each Leverage episode spends a good five minutes in tonal discord.

A strong executive hand can be a wonderful thing for shows like Burn Notice.  Hammer's suggestion to shift Burn Notice from Newark to Miami made it a show worth watching -- it made it the archetypal summer show.  The appeal is very clear there, while Leverage seems to wildly alternate between appealing to the geek crowd and older TNT demographics.  One can never be sure if studio, the network, and the writers are on anything resembling the same page for Leverage.

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.

That's a really interesting point about HBO, but now I can't get the image of Tony and McNulty discussing HBO's tagline.  Just think of all the interesting combinations HBO could come up with in the vein of USA's crossover commericals.  Instead of Evan R. Lawson trying to sell the branding of "Spyami" to Sam Axe, Omar could wistle his way into Hotshot or Larry David talking it out on In Treatment. The promo possibilites are endless!

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?

I think Psych's position is, as you point out, Myles, very unique due to the current trend within the USA genre/brand. Given that USA got a little handsy with In Plain Sight (to make it a little more blue skies, according to reports), I can see them retooling Psych slightly to do more dramatic elements. Certainly the last season finale was grislier than most episodes (while still being ironic), but perhaps the biggest sign that USA is pushing the show for different is the potential show mythology about the Ying and Yang killers, and their attachment to Shawn. The mythology is in Burn Notice and White Collar, and I think it's in Covert Affairs as well (I don't watch Royal Pains often enough to group it in that idea), so perhaps this is another trait that want to work into their genre: solid procedural elements with an on-going seasonal (or half-seasonal in the case of Burn Notice) arc.

I agree, Noel, that last season's Psych and the Yin and Yang killers seem to push the show into a little more dramatic territory, but I think its position as USA's straight comedy is fairly secure.  They might throw in some romantic triangle drama or the serial killer storyline, but at its core, Psych is light as air.  To err on the side of too light and breezy will hardly change the "blue skies" convention of USA shows (and their possible genre).  Psych, I think, helped USA to realize that breeziness could work as a tone and that comedy was the direction the network wanted to move toward.  While Monk was classified as a comedy, it's more serious in its subject matter--and arguably tragic because of Monk's persistent grief, lonliness and OCD--than even Burn Notice.  Without Psych, I wonder if Royal Pains would exist as it does: a show without a dark core or an unjust initiating action (despite the Daddy Issues that began this season).

What I find interesting about Royal Pains is that it does have an unjust initiating action, not only in the initial abandonment of the brothers by their father but also in Hank being fired from his job (an injustice that the "Previously On" premise segment reminds us of on a regular basis). However, the show has so transplanted itself into the Hampton's locale that said action has become irrelevant, Boris' job offer to Hank having "saved" him from that fate. There were moments in Season One where Hank talked about going back to the city, but those are now largely absent in favour of problems distinct to this new environment (a rival concierge doctor, Boris' medical condition, etc.).

I'll be very interested to see what happens when the show is forced to confront the end of its eternal summer - the concierge business would dry up during the Winter months, so does the show switch locales to another vacation spot to maintain its current premise, or does it bring up the initial action once more in order to send Hank's current mode into peril, and then simply start up again the following summer (perhaps with Hank, having returned to his old job but finding it unfulfilling, returning to the Hampton's and rediscovering his love for house calls)? It'll be a really interesting moment for the series, and a real test of where it sits on the USA Continuum.

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 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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