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October 25, 2014

How USA Network Found its Groove

by Gary Susman, posted Mar 31st 2010 12:00PM
How did USA become basic cable's most popular channel? They found a formula that works, and they stuck with it.

This week sees the season premieres of USA's 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' (Tuesday's debut, introducing a new detective played by Saffron Burrows, marks the beginning of season 9) and 'In Plain Sight' (starting its third season on Wednesday). Both series feature USA doing what it does best: offering quirky crimefighters who nail bad guys even as their own lives are falling apart.

The network's quirky crimefighter formula goes back to 'Monk,' which debuted in 2002. (Actually, it goes back even further, to NBC's 'Columbo,' in which Peter Falk's rumpled gumshoe could barely keep his trenchcoat clean or his jalopy running but managed nonetheless to trip up murderers with his disarming manner and his annoying attention to detail.) With Adrian Monk, played to Emmy-winning perfection by Tony Shalhoub, USA had a sleuth whose obsessive-compulsive disorder made him nearly impossible to get along with but also made him a brilliantly deductive detective. It also made him very funny. The juxtaposition of Monk's meticulous pursuit of criminals with his shambles of a private life made the show a pioneering comedy, one that satisfied mystery lovers while reassuring viewers that each week's menace was low-stakes enough that they didn't have to worry too much about the characters' fates. It was crime-caper comfort food, and it provided USA with a hit that gave the long-faceless network an identifiable brand. The series finale, in December 2009, drew 9.4 million viewers, setting a record as the most-watched episode of a scripted cable series.

USA's slogan was "Characters Welcome," but it soon became clear that all the new lead characters were going to be variations on Adrian Monk. The network's next hit was 'Psych,' launched in 2006, with more quirky sleuths, in this case one who solved crimes by pretending to be a psychic (James Roday), along with his hapless sidekick and comic foil (Dulé Hill). Then came 'Burn Notice' (2007-), about a disavowed spy (Jeffrey Donovan) with an ironic sensibility and a meddling mom (Sharon Gless), who bided his time fighting colorful, oddball bad guys in Miami. And 'In Plain Sight' (2008-), about a U.S. marshal (Mary McCormack) who has abandonment issues and an unusual job, protecting Albuquerque residents hiding out in the federal witness protection program.

Along the way, USA picked up 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' from parent company NBC. Though the series didn't originate on USA, its focus on eccentric but masterful detectives fit perfectly on the network's lineup. Jeff Goldblum, the king of odd-but-brilliant, joined the cast after the move to USA and fit in perfectly. Season 9 newcomer Burrows (best remembered as the prickly scientist from 'Deep Blue Sea') plays his new partner, a worldly-wise single mom.

White CollarLast year saw the launch of 'White Collar,' in which a veteran con man (Matthew Bomer) teams up with an FBI agent (Tim DeKay) to fight crime. The show was another hit in the ratings, averaging over 4 million viewers during its season finale.

And, in a first for USA, new series 'Royal Pains,' which averaged a record-breaking 7 million viewers in its debut season, featured a brilliant doctor (Mark Feuerstein) who helps the less fortunate, and whose life is a mess, and who lives in a colorful locale (the tony beach resorts of New York's Long Island).

Then again, maybe the medical drama isn't such a stretch. After all, USA is also the home to reruns of 'House,' the Fox drama about an abrasive-but-genius solver of medical mysteries, a man whose Holmes-like skills aren't fazed by his chronic leg pain, his pill-popping, or the extreme cynicism and misanthropy that makes him no fun to be around but entertaining as hell to watch.

'House,' which debuted two years after 'Monk,' shows how much the USA formula has begun to be copied by the broadcast networks. CBS' 'The Mentalist' is a pretty blatant clone of 'Psych.' Tim Roth's human polygraph on Fox's 'Lie to Me' seems to borrow from a familiar playbook. And ABC is developing a crime drama for fall called 'Body of Evidence,' which will star Dana Delany as a coroner with a combative personality à la Hugh Laurie on 'House.' Sounds like she'd be a character welcome on USA.

USA's response? More of the same. In July, the network launches a new series called 'Covert Affairs,' starring Piper Perabo as a rookie CIA spy with a gift for languages, a mysterious past, and a blind mentor (Christopher Gorham). And later, USA will air 'Facing Kate,' a dramedy starring Sarah Shahi ('The L Word') as a litigator-turned-mediator who helps folks in need and has a "geek chic" assistant named Leonardo (Baron Vaughn). In other words, if it ain't broke ...

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