It’s unlikely that anyone who’s watched any significant amount of television in the last five years could be unaware of USA Network. It’s been the number one network in basic cable prime time for the past three years, surpassing it’s nearest competitor (TBS) by double-digit margins.
While USA bootstrapped itself from mediocrity by airing repeats “borrowed” from its parent, NBC Universal, it was the network’s development of original series during the past half decade that elevated it above its rivals. These new, distinctive series have achieved such widespread popularity that, in some cases, their ratings have matched or surpassed NBC’s own broadcast shows. In fact, it’s a fair bet that just about every current Chuck viewer has, at one time or another, seen an episode of Burn Notice, White Collar, Royal Pains, Covert Affairs, In Plain Sight, Psych or Monk.
Yeah. All of those shows are (or were) on the USA Network.
So what made them and their parent network so popular? If you read what the network’s spokespeople have to say on the subject (references below), you’ll find they attribute their success to “finding a niche and exploiting it”, a business cliché so achingly trite that its mere mention can produce groans and rolled eyes. But look a little deeper, at the brand at the heart of USA’s niche, and you begin to see substance behind the jargon. There are two distinct paradigms, working together, that define the USA brand. The network calls these paradigms “Characters Welcome” and “Blue Skies”.
“Characters Welcome” is the network’s marketing speak for “shows built around main characters who have identifiable flaws, but remain consistently likable”. Their interest in these types of characters appears to have sprung from the network’s success with two mid-2000′s shows, Monk and Psych. As Jeff Wachtel, Original Programming President for USA explained it, “What started to evolve out of that were flawed characters, where their weakness was also their strength.”1 It’s impossible nowadays to read those words and not think of Burn Notice’s Michael Weston, whose emotionally detached childhood paved the way for the dispassionate spy he would become, or In Plain Sight’s Mary Shannon, whose emergence as the family disciplinarian in her father’s absence fortified her for a future career in Witness Protection. Look around, and you will find characters in all of USA’s stable of shows whose backstories follow this pattern.
“Blue Skies” nearly explains itself. It’s meant to be taken both figuratively and literally. USA wants their shows set in places imbued with a pervasive aura of optimism. Places where the good things in life are constantly on display. Bright, sunny places where blue skies and puffy clouds are the norm and fun times are always on tap. Any location that can be pictured that way can work, regardless of how many days of sun it actually gets. So, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Santa Barbara, The Hamptons, New York City, all of these work. Newark, NJ? Uh, not so much. That’s why, according to Bonnie Hammer, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment President, they weren’t too keen about Burn Notice until it moved to Miami.2
The interesting corollary to all of this focus on flawed characters navigating idealized landscapes is that, more than other shows, “Blue Skies” shows just spend a lot more time exploring their characters. We end up being exposed to Neil Caffrey’s ongoing struggle to overcome his criminal urges in White Collar, or Evan R. Lawson’s halting journey to become the dependable business partner his brother needs him to be in Royal Pains. Because the shows spend proportionately more time with their characters, we get to know them quicker; we identify with their struggles quicker. We root for them quicker. It’s a rapid cycle of endearment and what makes these shows so instantly ingratiating. No matter how convoluted the plots get (and none could be too much more opaque than S3 of Burn Notice) USA never allows them to overshadow the characters and their journeys. Why is that important to note? Well, we’re about to talk about Chuck, and I’m going to do a callback to this point later.
Rule #1: Create stars, don’t hire them – Bonnie describes the lead actors hired for their shows as, “one perfect role away from a hit series.” Adam Baldwin was a supporting actor with a vocal but small fan base. Zachary Levi had been on Less Than Perfect for four seasons but was still largely unknown. Yvonne Strahovski hadn’t been seen out of her native Australia.
Rule #2: Quirk it up – Bonnie says, “We want our leading characters to be aspirational and great at what they do, but with a bit of quirky dysfunction that makes them relatable.” Chuck is a Stanford-smart techie with low self-image but amazing potential. Sarah is a kick-ass CIA operative deeply conflicted about her life choices. Casey is a NSA assassin whose aversion to emotional intimacy manifests in comically aggressive fashion.
Rule #3: Go blue – Skies, she means. Chuck is set in southern California. ‘Nuff said?
Rule #4: Take a page from history – Bonnie relates that many of their shows mix in elements from hit shows of the past. “If you take a close look at Burn Notice,” she notes, “it’s basically MacGyver with some fun sex and buddies involved. Royal Pains is Marcus Welby, M.D. with McMansions and a bit of Robin Hood mixed in. And White Collar is It Takes a Thief with an even better-looking and hipper cast.” I would suggest that Chuck follows this same pattern. It’s precursor? A little show called Greatest American Hero.
Rule #5: Keep it light – Argh. Well, four out of five isn’t bad, right? In actuality, until S3 sank into a dismal quagmire around mid-season, we were doing okay here. And the back six episodes of S3 went a long way towards restoring the show’s balance, with ‘Honeymooners’ and ‘Role Models’ being perfect adherents to this rule. So I’m going to put a tentative check mark here as well. Consider it a vote of confidence for Chuck when it’s at its best.
Looks pretty good so far, doesn’t it? Just for fun, let’s try it on for size:
Wow, I like the fit already.
Well, here’s where I make my big, brash statement and try to defend it. Ready?
I believe that we’d have been better served had Chuck been picked up for its third season by USA Network rather than NBC. It’s even arguable that, overall, we’d have been better off if Chuck had originated on USA Network.
Based solely on content, seasons one and two of Chuck could have run on USA virtually unaltered (Note: they actually did show season one re-runs on USA back in 2007 to try to attract new viewers). I think Chuck’s first season scores a bulls-eye on the “Blue Skies” brand and the second season, while darker and heavier toward its end, stays well within the boundaries established by Burn Notice.
But that brings us to season three, and here’s where things run off the rails. In my opinion, there’s no way any of the episodes from “First Class” through “American Hero” would have gotten into production in the form we saw them if USA had been involved. It’s even possible that this entire middle arc of the season, where most of the ugliness resides, would have been shot dead during the planning process. And that, my dear readers, would have been a good thing for the show and all of its fans.
Let me explain.
Sandra Berg’s excellent article in WrittenBy magazine1 visits with several of the creative minds behind the shows I’ve already mentioned. In it, they describe the extensive partnership that USA maintains with each show’s creative team. “Hands off”, they’re not. It’s all done to preserve the brand. Nothing gets approved that doesn’t first go through the “Blue Skies” filter. While some might see this as invasive or even Draconian, there are some notable advantages to this approach. One of them is that the application of this oversight helps safeguard each show’s implied contract with its viewers. It does this by keeping the show runners from making ill-conceived choices that could turn away its audience. Any of this striking a chord yet?
Had USA’s “Blue Skies” filter been applied to Chuck in its third season, it would likely have corrected the season’s most egregious issues. First, the “epic” storyline Fedak and Schwartz designed to wrench Chuck & Sarah apart before reuniting them euphorically at the end would never have survived. While the Chuck show runners might have convinced USA that keeping the two romantic leads separated for part of the season was necessary, the network would likely have balked at a story that sidelined Levi and Strahovski’s appealing chemistry for twelve and a half of the original thirteen episodes. And they’d never have bought off on the dark, relentlessly depressing atmosphere that made watching Chuck a downer rather than a joy. If “Blue Skies” has an anti-matter, this was it. Fail.
Second, the tired and weak plot contrivances would have had to go. It’s not that I think USA has any problem with reusing mechanics that work. It’s just that the ones chosen for S3 were a poor fit for the characters as they had been left the last season. The direct result of this mismatch was that fans became distraught when the characters they thought they knew began to act in irrational and confounding ways. Eventually it reached the point of alienation, and there was a revolt. Remember, above, when I said I’d be doing a callback later? This is the place. The Chuck show runners broke their most important asset – their fans identification with the show’s characters. They devalued their characters’ individual journeys in deference to an arbitrary plot. This directly undermines the “Characters Welcome” paradigm. USA would have pitched a fit and they’d have been right to do so. Fail.
What might Chuck season three have been like had USA sent Chris Fedak back to the drawing boards? It’s impossible to say with any certainty. I’d like to think that the dark and oppressive air would have been scaled back considerably and some lighter episodes inserted to change the pace. And I have to believe that the irreconcilable character actions would have been removed or reworked. Just think, no Chuck choosing the spy life over Sarah in Prague (maybe Honeymooners is episode 3.02?). Or maybe, instead of leaving it hanging, Chuck and Sarah try to cleanup the mess that they made, as Sarah suggested in the courtyard. Or maybe Shaw would remain Chuck’s mentor rather than Sarah’s love interest, since her falling for the oafish lunkhead was jaw-droppingly nonsensical. Probably no Hannah as a love interest either, since that decision just made Chuck seem like a slow learner after Lou. Heck, the list goes on and on.
And what of Chuck and Sarah’s relationship through the first thirteen episodes? If you look at how Michael and Fiona’s relationship has been going on Burn Notice, or Hank and Jill on Royal Pains, or even Neil and Alex on White Collar, it might give you some idea. In all of those cases, the relationships feel a little more mature, while retaining moments of levity. I’d pick any of them in a heartbeat over the pointless angst we endured in S3.
So what if Chuck had originated on USA Network? Well, let’s get the big one out of the way right up front. The budget would have been tighter. Much tighter. That would have meant fewer location shoots, fewer sets, fewer and less expensive guest stars. Fewer and cheesier special effects. Reduced stunts. Probably fewer songs. Yvonne would have to cut one or two hairstyle changes per episode. Okay, just kidding on that last one. It’s no joke though that this would suck, but it wouldn’t be any worse than what you see on shows like Burn Notice and Covert Affairs. And seriously, guys, the show doesn’t live or die on the quality of its FX work anyway. It lives or dies on the strength of its series regulars.
And in that respect, at least, I’m convinced Chuck would be a better show today had it began on USA. Stories would have stayed smaller and more fixed on the main ensemble. More time would have been spent showing the repercussions of Chuck’s secret spy life on his friends and family. We’d have gotten more episodes like ‘Best Friend’ and fewer like ‘Third Dimension’. The “Blue Skies” filter would have ensured a steady supply of light, funny moments to complement the heavier drama we got towards the end of S2. The show might even have retained that breezy balance it had in S1 and the beginning of S2.
Originating on USA would also have done away with the annual rush to jam every idea into each remaining episode before the season ends. One of the things that Schwartz and Fedak seem to say every year is how they “threw everything including the kitchen sink” into the run-ups to season finales. It’s not an unreasonable position, since not knowing whether they were even going to have a next season made them antsy about leaving anything on the table. But what they don’t say is that this tactic steals time away from character development as those scenes make way for every sensational gimmick the two producers can think of.
This is something USA could fix. As Jeff Eastin, the creative force behind White Collar recounts in Berg’s article, “Bonnie Hammer sat him down and said, ‘Relax. You’re not being canceled in three episodes. We don’t do numbers, don’t worry about it, we believe in the show, we’ll make it work.’ This was great news for Eastin, who no longer felt the pressure to cram every good thing in the first one or two episodes to avoid cancellation.” I think this sounds like the perfect antidote for Schwartz and Fedak’s dilemma.
So, straight up, should Chuck be on USA Network?
I think, in the end, it comes down to what kind of stories work best to preserve what’s great about Chuck. The show thrives on just the right blend of Action, Drama, Comedy, and Romance. And if that blend is more likely to be achieved under “Blue Skies”, then the show would be better off, overall.
But would the show be gutted by its reduced budget? Could it retain enough of the cast and crew to stay the show we love? Without knowing the budgets in question it’s just not possible to predict the answers with any certainty.
One thing I am certain of, though, is that Chuck works best when its focus stays on its strong main cast. As wonderful as the show has been at times, the painful truth is that its plots are often full of holes, its mythology is weak, and its canon inconsistent. But we don’t care when the mood stays light and the characters and their relationships ring true. If USA’s “Characters Welcome” emphasis keeps the show’s focus where it belongs, then all I have to say is…
Blue Skies, forever.
Addendum: My article apparently inspired Frea O’Scanlin, super-talented author and video auteur, to produce this superb little faux promotion video for Chuck as if it had, in fact, been picked up by USA Networks. Take a look, and dream a little dream.