Tag Archives: psych

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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Psych: postmodern fun (not an oxymoron!)

One of my favorite episodic television series is back on the air tonight, so I thought it the appropriate time to delve into one part of Psych‘s appeal: it speaks to the postmodernist in me.

While far from perfect Psych boasts a number of strengths: the central friendship between Shawn Spencer (James Roday) and Burton “Gus” Guster (Dule Hill) is  breezy but believable (as is Roday’s and Hill’s off-the-charts comedic chemistry); the supporting cast provide balance in the day-glo hyperreal world of the show; and some of the snappiest and most popular culture reference-laden dialogue on the air occurs at a pace that would sometimes make Aaron Sorkin jealous.

Yet, the plots are ludicrous, especially the premise: for going on four years, Shawn has been able to fool both private clients and the Santa Barbara police department into believing he is psychic merely by his powers of observation. (Yes, The Mentalist basically stole the idea of this premise.)  However, the show never takes itself–or anything–seriously.

Witness the element that first made me tune back in: the Psych out.  These outtakes played over the end credits of many of the early episodes and were often Roday and Hill singing and dancing their way into my heart.

These Psych outs continue, if less frequently, and stand as illuminating examples of both the overall irreverent tone of the series and the first postmodern element I’ll investigate: The Breakdown of the Signifying Chain. [1]

Jameson characterized the postmodern as being temporally schizophrenic.  “With the breakdown of the signifying chain, therefore, the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material Signifiers, or in other words as a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.”[2] In Psych, the 80s seem perpetually present, with Shawn and Gus continually making reference to 80s popular culture (as well as the pop culture of other decades and the present, but the 80s take the majority), with a special focus on the minutia of that cultural moment.  The result is often that only Gus understands Shawn’s references and vice versa, as the references to cultural ephemera has become obscure with the passage of time.  For Shawn and Gus, though, that past is perpetually present and available. (Shawn lives in a state of arrested development, often having to borrow his father’s truck and installing school lockers in his office, so for him, the 80s–as the formative years that he never matured beyond–are his present.) This is in part because of Psych‘s form as a pastiche of many 80s detective programs.

Crockett and Tubbs or Spencer and Guster?

The episodic nature of the form runs counter to the serial trend of some television post-Lost, and the light tone also separates Psych from its fellow closed-in-an-episode mysteries like the self-serious Law & Order and CSI franchises.  Instead, the show appears in tone and plot more like Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, or MacGuyver.

Moreover, both it’s blank parody of and myriad references to the 1980s are made with a clear lack of critical distance, as both elements rarely say anything about the characters or the show itself beyond their ability to make those references or embody that tone.  The show is not commenting on the formula or tone of those 1980s detective predecessors, nor on those cultural works to which the characters refer.  Even its most recent advertising campaign evokes the 80s for no discernible reason other than somehow fits a show that constructs itself from old forms, old styles, and old speech from “the imaginary museum”[3] from which current cultural producers must turn.

If you didn’t know anything about Psych before that ad, would you guess that its present context would be the 1980s?

The point of all these references and this tone, though, is not a lofty expression of the postmodern moment.  It evokes the 80s because they have taken on this day-glo sheen, shining bright and fun in the popular consciousness.  Psych may be a postmodern program, but it lacks the dour notes of Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism.  Instead, it takes the presence of the past and the lack of critical distance and owns it, accepting it as, perhaps, a cultural dominant, but insisting that there is still room for play.  On Psych the characters can play dress-up in the clothes, speech, references, and tone of the 1980s–or the neon idea of the 80s–because it’s fun, and that’s all the reason the show needs.

Footnotes

1. I’m mostly using Frederic Jameson’s identifying features of postmodernism, though it should be noted, Jameson viewed postmodernism as a cultural dominant, not to be parsed out into attributes.
2. Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works, Eds. Durham and Kellner, (New York: Blackwell, 2006), 500.
3. Ibid., 494.