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USA Network Is Television's Best Answer To The Shifting Social Order

AMC’s celebrated dramas reflect anxieties of modernity, but Psych, Burn Notice, and White Collar offer resilience strategies for the same circumstances.

Posted on April 11, 2014, at 1:58 p.m. ET


If you looked at the critical acclaim its original series have received over the past decade or so, you might think AMC is the top basic cable network on television. Between Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, critics have spent hundreds of thousands of words peeling apart these gritty dramas, their shocking twists and gruesome turns. Inspired by premium HBO dramas like The Sopranos and The Wire, these shows catapulted AMC into "prestige television" and near a billion dollars in annual advertising revenue — a lot for a channel that subsisted solely on subscriber fees until 1998.

But AMC is not the top basic cable network. For the last eight years, more Americans have watched the USA Network. But the USA shows have gone almost completely unaddressed as texts, especially in comparison to their under-watched competitors at AMC. Part of the reason for that omission is that USA bucks a number of cable programming trends. Its shows are mostly joyous, lacking the fashionable brutality and anguish that distinguish HBO and its copycats. Rather than mourning what Americans have lost since The New Deal, USA original programming dares to suggest that there are worthwhile ways to be alive, even today. The second generation of USA's original shows are ending, and all enter syndication soon — Burn Notice ended after seven seasons in September, Psych after eight seasons in March, and White Collar will finish after a half-length sixth season. Together they represent a 200-hour oasis of utopian imagination about enduring trust and the strength of friendship.

Though they are near opposites when it comes to content, USA has undergone a transformation that's formally similar to AMC's: Declining subscription revenue from cable providers encouraged the development of original content that could draw viewers and ad dollars. After trying game shows, cartoons, and syndicated network sitcoms, in 2002 USA debuted the detective procedural Monk starring Tony Shalhoub as obsessive-compulsive police consultant Adrian Monk. Shalhoub stole the show as a pathetic savant former cop who couldn't be trusted to hold a gun after his wife's murder, solving crime in between cleaning, panic attacks, and appointments with his therapist. The show garnered praise from viewers and critics, earning eight seasons of uninterrupted Emmy nominations for Shalhoub — and three wins — as well as 5 million viewers a week. In the midst of Monk's success, USA quadrupled down on the show's structure, premiering the consultant procedurals Psych, Burn Notice, and White Collar.

At the heart of the difference between USA and AMC is their relationships to the modern workplace. USA's shows rely on the procedural form, a narrative that typically begins with a crime and ends with an arrest. The procedural is the television form that government bureaucracy takes: a dramatization of the legwork behind the paperwork. Pensions come up a lot in procedurals, as does civic duty. The bad guys in procedurals are often consultants, representing money, shortcuts, and the neoliberal attack on state workers. Television dramas have mined the deterioration of 20th-century labor relations for tension — most didactically in The Wire's second season — but procedurals don't all depict change in the same way. While AMC's dramas center on loss and longing, USA's procedurals are about characters who find ways to cope and even thrive under the new regime.

All four of the USA procedurals center on protagonists who work with but not for law enforcement agencies: Psych's fake detectives consult for the Santa Barbara Police, Burn Notice is about the exploits of on-again, off-again CIA operative Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), White Collar stars Matt Bomer as master-con-turned-FBI-confidential-informant Neal Caffrey. All the shows are procedural; that is, though they all have stories that carry over their seasons, each episode includes a narrative that begins and ends. Unabashedly formulaic, procedurals don't give critics trained in literary and film analysis nearly as much to work with as novelistic dramas do. Since the shows are premised on stability, characters don't change significantly in standard procedurals, and neither do their relationships. The comparatively pat endings give critics less to speculate about between episodes, and there aren't the same high-stakes script decisions to critique. Still, when taken as a whole, these USA consultant procedurals have a lot to say about work and life in the 21st century.

Out of the first generation of post-Monk shows, Psych has been the most successful, finishing as USA's longest-running original series. Psych is the story of best friends Shawn Spencer (James Roday) and Burton Guster (Dule Hill), who team up to open a psychic detective agency after Shawn accidentally convinces the Santa Barbara police that his keen observational skills are really supernatural inspiration. The two of them solve murderous conspiracies while snacking, bickering, and making movie references. As precarious laborers, Shawn and Gus are always working, which means they're also always not working. Instead of the pensions that keep state procedurals running — which they, like much of their audience, don't have — the Psych detectives are constantly on the lookout for free food.

Psych is a dramatization of "impostor syndrome" — the feeling that you're an unqualified fraud, faking your way through work in particular. It's an anxiety that's endemic to 21st-century jobs that lack clear and quantifiable success metrics, jobs based not on the Fordist assembly line or state bureaucracy, but in the social factory. Shawn not only isn't a psychic, he constantly assumes identities during his investigations. Gus acquired so many fake names during the series (Lavender Gooms, Ghee Buttersnaps, Blue Ivy Carter, Jonathan Jacob "Jingly" Schmidt, Santonio Holmes, Django Unchained, Bad News Marvin Barnes, and many many more) that a promotional T-shirt shows a close-up of Dule Hill's head made of pseudonyms.

The main characters in White Collar and Burn Notice also spend much if not most of their time playing other characters. (USA debuted the slogan "Characters Welcome" in 2005.) Since none of the protagonists have job contracts, they're not going undercover when they assume identities, they're just doing something new: playing archeologist or baseball mascot instead of cop or secret agent. The consultants are so flexible they can barely remember who they are in the first place. In another genre this might be a source of great anxiety, but the consultant procedural isn't dramatic in that way, and the protagonists have fun adapting their selves to the cases at hand.

Unlike other cable dramas and comedies alike, the post-Monk consultant procedural troika isn't in any way despairing. USA's shows get their laughs at the expense of archaic structures, not the protagonists who can't fit inside them.

Each of the stars spend a lot of time doing emotional labor, whether that's making nice with higher-ups, supporting their friends, or chatting with service personnel. The classic noir detective is an ornery loner, and Monk wasn't so far off — though it paid particular attention to the feminized care work Monk needed from his single-mom assistants. But in Psych, Burn Notice, and White Collar, the stars all have dependable teams or partners, people who are willing to lie, kill, and die for them. It's a refreshing departure from the cable war of all against all that pits every character against one another in a weekly death match. On USA, trust isn't a weaknesses to exploit, it's a strength, and the only way to thrive in a generally hostile environment.

In all four shows, the protagonist's father is an asshole, liar, or cop, or an asshole liar cop. They're all set up for the male Oedipal drama, but after Monk, the series use the opportunity to break the intergenerational attachment disorder cycle.

Burn Notice gets closest to the old pattern, with stone-faced super-spy Michael Westen used to going up against armies all by himself, no recurring characters. But the series begins with Western "burned" — dumped in his hometown of Miami, abandoned by his government contacts, and dependent only on people who actually care about him. He teams up with his ex-girlfriend and former IRA bomb specialist Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar) and buddy Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), who's a washed-out Navy SEAL, with recurring help from his chain-smoking mom Madeline (Sharon Gless). James Bond has a whole British Empire's worth of state infrastructure to support his solo spy lifestyle, but Michael Westen only has his friends and family left, which means many of the episodes center on him helping one of them with a nickel-and-dime project. He can't afford not to be there for his loved ones.

USA's consultant procedurals take place after anxiety about working with and for women is no longer an option. That is, they take place now. Michael puts it succinctly when another spy asks if he's one of those men who has a problem working with women: "If I couldn't work with women, I'd be dead right now." These are shows about male protagonists that aren't about their tragic, comedic, or ghastly struggle with toxic masculinity. All the romantic relationships in consultant procedurals are also work relationships — which I think is better understood as a critique than a quirk of the form: All romantic relationships are work relationships.

But without the work/household division, these shows have to be more overt about it, and thus the relationships are more reciprocal. The consultants need not anguish in desperation like Tony Soprano or Walter White as they struggle with the most basic practices of human decency. Even though they're not — or maybe because they're not — grown men in the classic American sense (mortgage, marriage, management), these dudes have been forced past the emotional baby steps we've come to expect from adult male leads.

Among the series enjoying critical acclaim — True Detective, Breaking Bad — women are often either shiftless femmes fatales or harried wife-mothers the protagonist is neglecting/staying alive to provide for. In the USA consultant procedural, girlfriends and wives are always first and foremost teammates and partners. They're never victims, and their lives can't be traded in for male character development. Sex itself is an afterthought on all these shows — never a central plot point or a significant character motivation. It's one of the reasons media critics tend not to take the series seriously, but it's a small price to pay for some television that doesn't center on sexual violence. The network's sexiest hetero star — White Collar's ocean-eyed Neal Caffrey — is played by a gay father in his mid-thirties, and even if that mattered, it wouldn't matter. He spends his erotic energy flirting at work.

Though they all feature straight men, none of these shows spend a lot of time on the couple form, and when a couple emergers it's within a wider team framework. In Burn Notice, Fiona is as likely to reproach Michael about the way he's treating his mother or Sam as to take issue with their relationship. When Shawn begins dating detective Juliet O'Hara (Maggie Lawson), the show doesn't start mining their relationship for conflict. The cliched straight male protagonist's dilemma — "Do my wife's feeling's matter more than my pride?" — is answered from the jump. These guys couldn't afford pride in the first place; they're constantly forced to escape, hide, beg, and stay at their moms' houses. Nor can they be shameless cads, because they have to continually depend on people who love them. Infinite debts are the only ones they can afford to pay back.

In Psych, Burn Notice, and White Collar, the protagonists (and audience) are relieved of the typical heterosexual male baggage: They don't have to pretend that they want to bang every woman in sight or that they can't form lasting attachments. Burn Notice changed Fiona's title-sequence description from ex-girlfriend to girlfriend without changing the show. When Juliet moves to San Francisco for a promotion at the close of Psych, Shawn says he'll wrap things up and join her. And then he does — without throwing a tantrum or needing to be congratulated — ending the show. Don't worry, Gus goes too, and in the finale, which includes Shawn's proposal to Juliet, the two friends assume one last fake identity: a married couple enrolling their child in preschool — and without the awkward gay-panic nudging that spoils Sherlock.

Even though these three shows are over, their DNA has entered television writ large, from the cartoon spy consultancy in Archer to the shameless network Psych rip-off The Mentalist. USA has kept working with the formula, producing too many variations to list. In the midst of scripted television in which the worst crimes of our fathers persist, the catastrophic ways we disappoint and fail the people we love, USA airs shows about friendship, loyalty, and common cause, standing apart as utopian imaginings of a social form that's tough enough to endure in America's cracks.