Post-hiatus musings: USA Network edition (Burn Notice and Suits)

After nearly a month, my fairly substantial hiatus here at TVS is over. I am happy to be back providing content for you folks on a regular basis. In my time off, I’ve missed all sorts of television, both viewing- and writing-wise. To combat that, I’ll be whipping up a number of random posts with thoughts on countless summer programming over the next few days. I hope you consider these posts fair payment for the weeks I took off so that I could work on my thesis and spend time with my significant other. 

You folks know how much I enjoy talking about USA Network’s stable of programming, but I’m probably going to keep things relatively brief today, if only because my schedule doesn’t necessarily permit much more. Nevertheless, talking about Burn Notice and Suits together presents an interesting perspective on how USA Network series look when they’re just out of the gate and much, much longer in the tooth. These two series also represent somewhat different sides to an important piece of the USA Network formula/brand/genre that I think is worth noting. Because of this, expect this post to go back and forth between the two series instead of separating them like I have the previous post-hiatus entries. Not that this really matters, but hey.

Much has been made about USA series’ use of the ongoing mystery conceit and if you’re a long-time reader of the blog, you probably remember that I’ve had some questions about the value of these sort of long-running arcs, particularly in regards to how they play out within individual episodes or seasons. As I’ve said before, I understand the desire to include ongoing arcs in your narrative. All of USA Network’s programs are heavily procedural and including that additional layer of storytelling helps the stable of series stand out against the likes of NCIS and CSI:. I have no problem with Burn Notice being about Michael’s search to find who burned him, why they did so and what that means for him and his closest allies in the long-term, just like I have no problem with White Collar focusing on various things that force Neal to confront his past in the present.

The problem with this is that Burn Notice and White Collar are really the only two that have figured out how to sustain the ongoing narrative for an extended period of time while also keeping it interesting. Covert Affairs, Royal Pains and Psych all become much lesser programs when they try hard to do those kinds of stories. But even as the series that really set the template (though some might want to argue for Monk*), Burn Notice has started to show its weaknesses over the past few seasons. The ongoing narrative has become less interesting and more difficult to follow and even though the end of season four suggested improvements in quality and clarity, those things haven’t really come to pass in season five, at least in recent episodes.

*Monk certainly set the stage for all kinds of things that USA Network would do in the years following its debut, but that series was always less interesting in exploring the murder of the lead character’s wife on a consistent basis. It was an element, but not an ongoing or major one like the way that Burn Notice uses whatever the hell is going out with Michael that season. 

It appears to me that part of the problem with Burn Notice (and White Collar) is that the ongoing narrative is most interesting at the very beginning of each season (usually the first episode or two) and then it quickly gets muddled and somewhat boring until things pick up again near the mid-season or season-proper finale. Obviously this is something that plagues most television seasons, as the middle is often a bit of a slog to get through for various reasons. But it seems more prominent with Burn Notice or any USA Network series that really hammers home the ongoing arc. I was really jacked about the beginning of this Burn Notice season and though the first four or five episodes were very good. The last five? Zzzzzzzz. They haven’t been terrible, but I’ve found myself more bored by the proceedings than I was previously. And that happens every season.  At least I know what’s going on, unlike the last two seasons that struggled to find an interesting point to build from in their middle runs. Thankfully, Burn Notice has a solid cast of characters that can carry the series through even the poorest episodes, but that really only allows for a C episode to turn into a B-minus episode.

This is all my way of saying that I think Suits might be better off in the long run because of the way it has approached its so-called ongoing story. Suits does have something there with the fear of someone finding out Mike’s secret, but it isn’t an element that defines each episode or even is mentioned on a regular basis. Mike’s so-called genius mind has also been curtailed, leading to a much more generalized product. However, I’m not entirely sure that is really a bad thing when I look at how the series could look in season three, four or five.

Unlike Burn Notice or White Collar, two series that from the beginning were defined by larger, ongoing mysteries and questions, Suits is basically defined by the rapport between its characters. In the initial post-pilot episodes, this was partially confusing and partially dumbfounding to me because it didn’t seem to jive with what I expected from an USA Network product. However, as the performers grew more comfortable with one another and the writing sharpened up substantially, I realized that Suits didn’t always need Mike to be the smartest guy in the room and didn’t need to talk about how he was going to be discovered 10 times a week.

Some might say that this transition makes the series more generic. At this point, Suits is basically just a light workplace drama that just happens to be about lawyers even though the series doesn’t seem particularly interested in court room drama or those kinds of genre staples. The two best episodes of the series thus far were powered by an in-house mock trial (“Play the Man”) and in-house subterfuge (“Undefeated”). These were far from original premises, but the performances, writing and pacing helped make the episodes fun and enjoyable. Generic or not, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a series that takes a familiar premise and injects just a smidgen of life into it based on the chemistry of all its lead cast.

Moreover, because Suits isn’t focusing so heavily on its “mythology” in the early going, audiences are never really going to expect it to do so in the future. Burn Notice certainly had close-ended procedural episodes in its first season, but the driving force was about Michael finding out who burned him and how. That search brought us the fun characters and the beginning of Michael’s character transition, but Burn Notice was and will forever be defined by Michael’s crusade for answers. Suits is taking a somewhat different approach by focusing on the character relationships first and then using the one big “question” (Will Mike get caught?) to drive a story here and there or to shift a relationship between characters, like when Rachel find out about his LSAT-taking past.

This certainly doesn’t make Suits a “better” series than Burn Notice was in its first season and without the comfortable, charming cast, Suits probably wouldn’t be worth a darn. Nevertheless, I do wonder if this slight change in approach to ongoing narrative will help the series at worst sustain its current paces and never feel like it is stalling the minds of the impatient viewers. Burn Notice suggested great things and then only sort of delivered them before settling into solid territory. Suits isn’t promising anything and maybe that’s for the best.*

*I also wonder what this says about how USA approaches ongoing narrative arcs and whether or not I/we need to reshape our perspective. Though nearly of the series currently airing do have some sort of larger question that continues to get dragged out, White Collar and Covert Affairs (in some respects) are the only two of the post-Burn Notice series that really hammer it home on a regular basis. Things like Royal PainsNecessary Roughness and Fairly Legal are “more procedural” than Burn Notice and the like. It’s possible that USA is shifting its strategy a bit or it’s possible that I am reading into these things too much. 

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