Royal Pains began it’s 8th and final season this past week and with that, it marks the end of an era for USA when fun Characters were Welcome and every week felt like a mini vacation.
USA started out mostly broadcasting sports and reruns of older shows. They hit on their first big bit of original programming with the “Up All Night” block, that showed old B-movies with segments featuring host Gilbert Gottfried but things really took off shortly before NBCUniversal bought the network. Monk debuted in 2002 and became the first big scripted hit for USA and then Psych arrived in 2006 and set the tone of goofy, episodic fun that the other original shows picked up and ran with, starting with Burn Notice’s debut in 2007. Burn Notice hit on the same feeling that you get from a summer blockbuster at the movie theater or a thriller novel you bring to the beach as Michael Westen used his spy tactics to help various clients with the help of his “trigger happy ex-girlfriend” Fiona and his old buddy, Sam Axe. When Burn Notice became a hit, USA took the same basic formula and applied it other genres, like medical dramas for the aforementioned Royal Pains or heist/crime for White Collar. Burn Notice and Royal Pains were the two shows that really captured that “summer” vibe though, both taking place in sunny, beach locations and, while there were overarching plots for both shows, focused more on the case of the week that brought Michael Westen or Dr. Hank into contact with colorful characters in extravagant locations, which is probably why the aired back to the back for a few seasons. Even in the promos, there was a sense of breezy fun, as Michael sent Dr. Hank a spy care package when Royal Pains debuted, which I don’t see Mr. Robot doing to any of the new USA shows. Even though the shows were much lighter than what was airing on the major networks during the regular TV season, when Burn Notice first started, most of the major networks treated summer like a dumping ground for nothing but game shows or reality programming, saving new and returning scripted programming for the fall. The success of USA’s shows is most likely the reason that you enjoy scripted shows on both cable and the networks year round.
USA may have over saturated themselves, as ratings started to drop for most of their original shows and some were outright failures (Remember Necessary Roughness? No one does). The first awkward steps toward grittier, more serious USA shows was Graceland, which tried to marry the beach fun of Burn Notice with serious crime drama that you might find on FX or AMC but the combination never really clicked as the fun side wasn’t fun enough and the dramatic side was too dramatic to the point of being ridiculous. USA seemingly learned from Graceland and now they have a new crop of serious dramas being led by the critically acclaimed Mr. Robot, which gets descriptors like “disturbing” and “intense” more than “fun” and “breezy”. They have a new Breaking Badesque series called Queen of the South arriving this summer and the solid alien invasion show Colony as well. There are still missteps with shows no one’s heard of or watched like Complications but with Mr. Robot, USA is starting to get some of that award and critical attention they never got before. They are far from competing with AMC or FX in the dramatic realm but they are on the right track, although at the cost of the fun that got them to where they are now. I love dramatic shows like the Breaking Bads or Mad Mens of the world but there are times when you just wanted to hear Jeffrey Donovan to do insane accents or see Dr. Hank come up with some ridiculous Macgyver contraption to treat a crazy illness. Did you have a favorite “fun” USA show?