Monthly Archives: March 2010

Characters Welcome: USA Network Brand, Formula, or Genre

I watch a lot of television, obviously, and a lot of what I watch is on cable.  In the last year or so, I’ve had the growing sense that, in the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield, “There’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.”  The “here” being cable networks with original programming aimed at adults.  I’m not talking about Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, both of which have built their empires around original programming aimed at kids and teens.  They’re ahead of the curve in terms of original niche programming.  Instead, I’m interested in the success of USA network original programming.  I’m especially interested in the question of what ties the shows on this networks together: are they a brand, a formula, or a genre?

USA network: Characters Welcome

The 2005 rebranding, the first step

USA network has been showing original programming since the 80s, but the network began the push for quality series–accessible to both critics and fans that would last in prime-time–in 2002, with Monk and The Dead Zone.  Both proved successful for the network, lasting seven and five years, respectively, but it is in the former more than the latter that I see the kernel of the network’s current successful spate of programs.  Monk won Emmys (mostly for acting) and was seen as a breakout for cable programming in terms of both popularity and quality, but it was also the clearest reason for USA’s 2005 rebranding with the slogan “Characters Welcome.”  Monk was a procedural detective show that followed its formula closely, but what elevated it above similar formulaic fare was its central character, Adrien Monk, a “quirky” obsessive-compulsive detective.  From Monk the character, came the tone: comedy with a perpetual underpinning of drama (just as Monk recognized his OCD as somewhat ludicrous but an unavoidable and somewhat tragic part of his life).    Fittingly, Monk as progenitor of the current cycle, is the only original programming from the rebranding period to survive past 2007, the year Burn Notice premiered.

Burn Notice and the current state of USA

Burn Notice, to my mind, appears as the turning point, the series that made USA executives take note of what they were doing right and how they could reproduce whatever that was.  Though Psych premiered the year before–to great ratings, no less–it remained a blip on the cultural radar until Burn Notice cemented USA as the cable network to go to for original programming.  Psych has always been a bit fluffier than its more dramatic USA brethren, with no central tragic mystery (like Monk) or driving arc for drama (Michael Westen’s titular burn notice) or even sense of moral purpose (as in In Plain Sight).  Burn Notice became the exemplar of the burgeoning USA Network brand, and perhaps its emerging genre.

Burn Notice took Monk‘s central “quirky” straight man and its structure of narrative complexity and folded in Psych‘s generic self-consciousness. All three central characters shared the distinction of being the best at what the do but lacking the social skills needed in order to properly function outside of the families of understanding they created around them.  Throw in an under-utilized, often exotic locale, shuffle the procedural episodic formula, and this is the “USA Network show” formula.  But could it be more than that?  Could it be a genre?

Brand or Genre?  Does it matter when it’s a success?

Genre is a slippery term; there are as many definitions as there are genres themselves.  At its core, genre is a categorization based on expectations.  Perhaps one of the better known theories of genre is Rick Altman’s Semantic/Syntactic method, wherein genre can be defined in terms of a group of signs (characters, images, iconography, etc.) that are arranged into syntactic formulas and plots, and together they form the generic conventions.  So, if I were to plot USA network series as a genre in this way, it might look something like this:

Semantic: “smartest guy in the room” central character (Michael Westen [Burn Notice], Adrien Monk [Monk], Shawn Spencer [Psych], Neal Caffery [White Collar], Hank Lawson [Royal Pains], Goren/Nichols [Law and Order: Criminal Intent]) [outlier: Mary Shannon (In Plain Sight), also the only female central character], under-utilized locale (Miami, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, the Hamptons, Albuquerque) [outliers: White Collar and Law and Order: CI are set in New York City), best friend/partner/family member that serves as emotional/moral/humor grounding force for central character (all of ’em), a “helping people” job (spy, detective, “psychic” detective, FBI agent/consultant, doctor, detective, US Marshal)

Syntactic: central character dismissed from/unable to pursue lucrative/traditional form of their job for bureaucratic/nefarious/mysterious reasons, chooses instead to help people/earn a living outside or ancillary to “the law” [variations: pursues traditional form of job in untraditional ways that make them both good at their job but forever in conflict with reigning authority]

The question I must ask is: can a brand become a genre?  Maybe.  The closest example to support an answer of yes is the idea of “Disney feature animation” as a genre that extended beyond the brand.  Animated musicals of the late 1980s and 1990s are dominated by Disney animation, yet when I talk with my peers about what constitutes that generic corpus, non-Disney film such as Anastasia and An American Tail sometimes get lumped under the Disney label.  Whether that is enough to argue for Disney as a genre, I don’t know, and certainly whether I can extend that analysis to USA network programming.  If USA network can be seen as a genre, TNT original programs like Leverage and The Closer become part of the generic corpus, as they could easily fit into the semantic/syntactic conventions of USA network programming.

Justified and the FX formula: Lawman or Lawbreaker

Regardless of what I can call USA’s programming as a group, I believe its success has become a model for other cable networks with increasing original programming.  Most notably, FX network is gaining a reputation for darker, “grittier,” and notably “masculine” dramas that push against the line between law and outlaw with successful hour-long programs: Rescue Me, The Shield, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, and most recently Justified.  To put the stakes of cable programming in perspective, the premiere of Justified attracted 4.2 million viewers, which would put it at #23 in the Nielsen top broadcast ratings for the week.  Increasingly successful cable programs are becoming successful programs without the need for the modifier of “cable,” and USA network was and currently is the leader of that change.  There’s something happening here . . .

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“You understand the TV and life are different, right?”: Community and Performativity

This clip is the most recent “tag” during the credits of Community.  Often these tags center on Abed and Troy’s strange but hilarious enactments of their friendship, and they are almost exclusively directed at the television audience.  They display an implicit acknowledgment of themselves as characters to be viewed by an outside audience.  This mode of self-consciousness is not only present in these “tags” but also appear throughout the show, usually but not necessarily with Abed as its nexus.

While this is certainly part of the trend of reflexive television, especially prominent in comedies (see: Psych, 30 Rock, and the mocumentary-style sitcoms Arrested Development, The Office, Modern Family, etc.), I’m more concerned with the way in which this reflexivity reflects an idea of contemporary performativity.  Specifically, characters like Abed conceptualize themselves as always performing for some (unseen) camera or audience.  Celebrity and fame could happen at any moment, so they live their lives as if they were already an object-subject within the media to be seen.

We all–to some extent–perform ourselves in public.  We may want to appear attractive or cool

Jeff Winger: 10% Dick Van Dyke, 20% Sam Malone, 40% Zach Braff from Scrubs, and 30% Hilary Swank from Boys Don’t Cry

But Community often exaggerates this performativity to emphasize the idea that we act in relation to an unseen or assumed viewer.  The characters are not in a mocumentary like The Office; they don’t know that they’re television characters, but they often act as though they do.  And in performing as if there were someone else watching, they are creating their subjectivity as performers.

For whom does Pierce dance?

The emphasized performativity in Community, aside from being funny and self-conscious, comments on the increased performativity in contemporary culture.  We’re inundated with reality shows and youtube stars, and we can create our own television shows regardless of the presence of cameras.  We are our own actors in the webcam of life.