USA Network: An Oasis in Television's Summer Desert
The end of the television season can feel exhausting. Not only do viewers get overloaded with ratings-jucing drama ranging from surprise pregnancies on Bones to shocking acts of road rage on House, but when it's all over, we're cut off, addicts facing an involuntary withdrawal after a particularly potent hit. In the summer desert, one network's turned itself into a programming oasis, providing relief from the likes of Love Bites—the once-promising NBC show that now just feels like filler—or The World According to Paris, Paris Hilton's desperate attempt at relevance, which debuted to miserable ratings: USA.
USA has become the single most valuable part of NBC Universal and the dominant force in basic cable prime time with a potent combination of professional wrestling, reruns of popular shows, and smart original programming. And it's built huge strength in that last category for two reasons. Using "character" as a core concept provides continuity between quirky characters and their unusual working arrangements—and it sells viewers on the idea that their taste for those characters is a moral act, that rooting for charming con-men and wildly anti-social U.S. Marshals alike is proof of our ability to see and appreciate nuance. But the network's also taken advantage of an odd assumption by its competitors: that summer is a time to burn off bad shows or to flood the market with cheap and stupid reality programming. More than anyone else, USA insists that just because the mercury rises and television viewers' fancies turn towards thoughts of vacation doesn't mean their entertainments have to be aggressively stupid.
There's something odd about the calculation that in a season where movie studios make a lot of money on blockbusters, which even if they aren't striving for artistic brilliance generally try to look good, television audiences want things that look cheap, sound stupid, or have no future. It's weirdly insulting to toss scraps that didn't make the cut for the regular TV season on the air and see if they'll stick if only because they're marginally better than the other leftovers other networks are setting out as prime time fare. And summer reality competition shows like Wipeout often seem constructed on the assumption that audiences look to shows like American Idol or Dancing With the Stars as delivery vehicles for humiliation, not talent. What USA's done with summer is just a larger-scale version of what HBO and Bravo have done with Sunday nights, airing their respective event shows like Game of Thrones and Real Housewives of Atlanta in time slots their competitors have dismissed as non-starters.
It took the network a while to perfect that approach to picking up its competitors' slack. La Femme Nikita, which ran on the network from 1997 to 2001, began its runs during the January hiatus in the network television season and aired through August. Monk, which aired from 2002 to 2009, started its season in June or July every year except its last. But while that show helped USA refine its approach to the television season, Monk was an evolutionary stage in the network's approach to eccentricity. The things that made Monk an excellent detective also came with substantial social and personal costs, an approach USA would largely abandon in later shows.
The network hit its current stride with the introduction of Psych in 2006 and Burn Notice in 2007. The fake prognosticator of Psych and his pharmaceutical rep best friend run around a sun-drenched Santa Barbara saturated in bright blues and greens, solving serious crimes with a patently ridiculous approach. Burn Notice is in even more vacation-worthy Miami, where the dominant color palette is a cool reinterpretation of '80s neon and no matter how big the explosions, the prevailing tone is sarcastic. USA sometimes seems to take pleasure in seeing what it can get away with, what it can make look stylish and desirable, whether it's resurrecting Bruce Campbell's career while preserving the nod and the wink that's always accompanied his acting, or selling audiences on the idea that legal mediation is a sexy process.
But as much as USA's summer shows are light and look good, they're not dumb. Piper Perabo may not make a hugely convincing CIA agent on Covert Affairs, but the show's depictions of how the intelligence agencies treat disabled employees or how they handle leaks of classified information are accurate, and provide substantive drama. Michael Weston's Burn Notice clients and adversaries may be a rogue's gallery of eccentrics, but that they're still capable of doing very bad things. Mary Shannon may run on a diet of sarcasm and spite, but it's the fuel that lets her protect characters who are trying to reconcile witness protection with everything from Jewish religious observance to Asperger syndrome in In Plain Sight. And just because Hank Lawson's patients on Royal Pains are flighty rich people doesn't mean they can't end up very dead. Watching USA's shows lets you appreciate the stakes without getting anxious over them.
The network hasn't set the bar that high. It's got no aspirations to be HBO or Showtime, but that's not the point. All USA's programming proves is that you don't have to be stupid during the summer to be entertaining, and it's reaping rewards for it. In a sweltering season of blind man, the one-eyed network is king.
With shows like "Covert Affairs" and "Burn Notice," the channel offers its best programming in a season when other stations are showing their worst