It’s time for USA to update its network formula


The USA network’s well-known formula could use a bit of tweaking. It should allow the shows to evolve naturally — as it has been starting to do. Also, I suggest which of the network’s stable of current shows does the formula thing the best.


Few networks have as strong and as recognizable a brand as USA does. After a summer of watching and reviewing some USA offerings, I am starting to think about what works and doesn’t work in the network’s formula for its shows. We know the network for its blue skies, “Characters Welcome” approach to television storytelling. The shows are generally fun summer fare, often procedural and easily digestible. In general, this is an approach to TV that I enjoy, as I don’t believe every show can or should be, say, Breaking Bad.

The week-to-week formula on a USA show generally follows the pattern that Burn Notice has been using for six seasons now. There is a protagonist, Michael Westen, who is very good at his job, though of course his personal life is a mess. Every week, he and his team have a new case to deal with, but there is an overarching mythology that gets increasingly complicated as the seasons go on. This mythology is usually sort of confined to during the first five minutes and last five minutes of every episode, except for premieres and finales, which often deal exclusively with mythology. This is the formula, and while it may have worked in the early seasons of the show, it’s getting tired now. (Psych is an even older show, but it doesn’t really have a mythology so it’s been grandfathered in.)

This is the formula, and while it may have worked in the early seasons of the show, it’s getting tired now.

Now, I don’t watch every single USA offering (sorry, Suits and Covert Affairs), but of the ones I do watch, White Collar seems to be the more direct descendant of Burn Notice – which is my model for an archetypal USA show — in terms of structure. There is a case of a week, and nowadays, the episodes check in on Neal Caffrey trying to figure out why his godmother Ellen was murdered; in earlier seasons, it was his girlfriend’s death he dealt with, more than once, even. Now we are getting the idea that the current storyline will unravel to reveal Surprising Truths about Neal’s dad, who may or may not have been a dirty cop. I expect these reveals will take a long time and involve increasing layers of bad guy conspiracies, just like on Burn Notice.

And already, I don’t care.

In the case of both White Collar and Burn Notice, the long-term story arc is in fact the least interesting element of the show. The multi-year arc of who burned Michael got so complicated that I could not longer keep track of it and, thus, did not care much about it. I expect the investigation into Nate’s death to go the same way, as well as Neal’s investigations on White Collar. For both of these shows, the chemistry between the leading players as they do their week-to-week case work is the real appeal. Michael, Sam, Fiona, and Jesse interacting and tackling problems from week to week is the engine that drives Burn Notice, just as the uneasy Neal/Peter partnership is what makes White Collar work.

I have started to notice shifts in the USA formula, these two shows notwithstanding. I was reviewing Necessary Roughnessthis summer, and I came to see it as having an opposite problem from White Collar and Burn Notice. Dr. Dani Santino usually had a case of the week, but it almost always felt shoehorned in compared to the increasing drama with Dani’s personal life and the drama surrounding the Hawks. With this show, so much was going on I never really felt that I needed to see Dani’s other patients. I wonder if the difference here is that Dani has to work each weekly therapy “case”alone, isolating her from the other characters, such as Matt, Nico, and TK, whose interactions help make the show interesting.

If USA is really all about characters, then a show like this should be allowed to focus on the characters in their shared milieu rather than isolating them. For White Collar and Burn Notice, the shared milieu is structured so that it involves the main cast in the cases of the week, whereas with Necessary Roughness, the shared milieu is the football team and all its attendant stories. As a result, this just doesn’t lend itself as well to cases of the week, unlike the other two, which are more fun when they are mostly procedural.

The show that I actually feel is allowed to be itself the most while also managing to stick to the USA formula the best is, oddly enough, Royal Pains. I don’t think most people would say this is exactly the best show on the network, but in some ways, it offers the most uncomplicated pleasure. Now, hear me out. The show’s milieu, a concierge medicine company, lends itself to involving everyone in cases of the week, especially now that Paige works for HankMed, and most of the actors involved shine when dealing with the patient guest stars. The case of the week showing the main characters something about themselves is a trope as old as procedurals, but I think it works here because health care professionals have to care so much about their patients. (It should work on Roughness, but the case of the week is often given so little time there as to feel perfunctory; we can’t care about Dani’s non-team patients if if the show doesn’t.)

HankMed also allows for enough interpersonal drama to keep things interesting. For instance the introduction of the awkward Dr. Jeremiah Sarcani and his sweet unrequited love for Divya has been a highlight of the season for me. This show, since it lacks the mythology of some of the heavier USA offerings, focuses on the characters: the very essence of USAs’s Characters Welcome mission statement.

I don’t mean to imply that Royal Pains is a perfect show by any means. Mark Feuerstein is pretty good when playing against patients and against Paulo Costanzo, but the repeated attempts to give him a girlfriend are snooze-worthy. The Paige is adopted storyline needs to play out further before I can judge it properly. And the stuff with Boris (which may be this show’s attempt mythology) is a waste of Campbell Scott and feels like it belongs on, well, Burn Notice. But most of this stuff doesn’t take away from the good work the show has done by toning down Evan’s character by keeping him with Paige and allowing him to grow, and by Hank finally admitting they needed to hire other doctors and grow the business. Their little team feels like a family, which is why I tune in from week to week.

USA should trust their slogan to be true: characters are why people tune in to shows most of the time.

The conclusion I can tentatively draw from my musings is that, perhaps USA shows should either be or not be procedural, depending on what works for each show, but that the ones I watch at least would be better off without a heavy-duty mythology arc that starts to feel confusing and perfunctory after a while. USA should trust their slogan to be true: characters are why people tune in to shows most of the time.

Of course, USA’s formula seems to work well for them in terms of ratings, and if it ain’t broke, right? I don’t know that the network feels that it ain’t broke, though. This season’s miniseries Political Animals represented an attempt to experiment with breaking the formula a bit, even though the show was tonally similar to the network’s other shows. Unfortunately, the ratings were not great, which may teach USA to just leave things be. However, I also feel like the second season of Necessary Roughness, with its decreased emphasis on cases of the week may have been part of the same experiment, and perhaps shows a willingness to let each show find what works for it (even if they won’t be allowed to abandon the formula entirely). I really hope that’s the case. The USA brand is very strong and clearly a good way to launch shows, with their focus on character and on maintaining a breezy tone, but then those shows should be allowed to find their way without too many network constraints or demands for complicated mythology.

Photo Credit: USA

13 Comments on “It’s time for USA to update its network formula

  1. I absolutely disagree with you. I love the format of USA. It is my go to channel. Frankly, since Burn Notice has been off, I have missed it.

  2. I am sorry but this article is complete rubbish and actually most of what you are saying makes very little sense! USA Network has the best shows on TV and i too love their format and their style. My favorite show since it began is Psych, but i also am a huge fan of Covert Affairs, Fairly Legal and White Collar. But Psych is quite possibly one of the funniest, cleverest and most original shows to hit our screens in the past 20 years and the cast has the most amazing chemistry that i have ever seen! Also you say that Psych has no “mythology” as you put it? Well either you have never seen the show or you pay very little attention when you are watching. Yes Psych is a procedural of sorts but it is more about the characters than anything else and about the on going story lines such as Shawn’s relationship with his father, his romance with Juliet, his friendship with Gus, and most important of all the show is actually centered around the biggest story arc of all and that is the fact that he is a fake psychic and what will happen when the police find out? That and the characters personal story lines are what makes the show and the case of the week is almost secondary especially in the later seasons when they started to explore all of the characters more, especially Juliet and Lassiter’s personal lives and back stories. That’s what makes Psych so special and original and so very different from any other procedural crime show on TV! I completely disagree with your whole premise for this article.

  3. Whoa there. You disagree with my entire premise by reading into the fact that I left Psych out, it seems. That is just because Psych is not part of the problem I am discussing because it doesn’t have a Burn Notice style mythology – which is not to say it has no mythology, but the stuff you mention is neither what I think of as “mythology” not problematic. That is all ongoing storyline. As it happens, I love Psych and really have no problems with it. I like all the shows I mention, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy them uncritically. Being a fan of something doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge that the thing could be even better. If I didn’t care about the shows, I wouldn’t have bothered writing about them, let alone watching them!

    • @Christina: Maybe you should have worded your article better because i was under the impression that you were talking about the network’s shows in general. So if you weren’t talking about Psych then i sincerely apologize but you should have been clearer about that, because i never got that at all! That being said i still wholeheartedly disagree with your article in reference to the other shows… sorry.

    • I was talking about a sampling of the network’s shows, but I specifically left Psych out of it, as I think it predates the network formula. If I had wanted to apply my argument to Psych i would have taken the time to do so. I also left out shows I don’t watch. I did keep the discussion to the network in general because I do believe that the shows, taken together, present a strong brand – one that I like even if I think there is room for improvement. Sorry I didn’t exclude Psych more explicitly.

  4. @Christina The two best USA shows from this summer are the two you don’t watch and they break the USA mold. Covert Affairs this season went away from procedural elements and instead had a longer story arc. It also changed the tone. It went from a sweet spy show to an intense spy thriller. (All of S3 is available online and on demand if you want to watch it)

    And, then Suits. Best show on USA! One of the best shows on TV, period.

    • You are not the first to say this, and I am glad that maybe these shows are also a sign that USA is loosening up. Allow me to explain my deal with the shows. I started watching CA but after the first season decided the only interesting character was Auggie, but that wasn’t enough to keep me in. As far as Suits goes, the initial reviews I read were terrible, so I never got into it. The problem now is that I am 1. A completist and 2. Don’t have time to pick up these shows now. I mean, I have had The Wire sitting in my to-watch pile for years. My husband and I spend our evenings together and can agree on only a very few shows, which is why my to-watch pile is large and not decreasing any. Shows like The Wire are too dark for him, yet the only USA thing he likes is Psych (soooo picky).

  5. You also much not watch Burn Notice anymore. This last season had no “cases of the week”, it was all about the mythology. Granted, it was the best season because of this, in my opinion.

    • I have never missed an episode, and was co-reviewing it this summer. I agree it became more mythology heavy, but there were definitely cases of the week. Such as Sam’s girlfriend’s son being in trouble.

  6. It’s not the only one, but I am not going to look over recaps right now to prove it. That actually supports my point even if it were true; I’d rather they go back to doing that sort of thing then penetrate into the umpteenth layer of bad guys with a grudge against Michael.

  7. Agreed. Burn Notice was starting to feel more like The Mentalist (though not a usanetwork show) in that both had an increasingly complex mythology. One had many levels of villains, and the other had a mastermind who could control all these different people from various occupations. Fyi, I first got hooked on both because of the characters, not the mythology. I felt both were at their best when they were not dealing with the villains. One thing I think The Mentalist did right was to not focus on the mythology every episode, or if it did, it somehow tied in to the case of the week. I admit I haven’t watched the recent seasons of Burn Notice though so I’m not sure if it puts some focus on its villains in every single episode.

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