USA Network’s “Blue Skies” Theme – Is it Right for Chuck?

USA Network LogoIt’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.

So, the first thing we should probably be asking is, “Would Chuck fit in to the USA Networks brand?”  Let’s start by matching it up to Bonnie Hammer’s Five Basic Rules for a USA Show2:

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.
  


References:
1 Quotes from the network and show runners: WrittenBy magazine, Sandra Berg.
2 Quotes from Bonnie Hammer, Reference: Entertainment Weekly, Dan Snierson

About aardvark7734

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13 Responses to USA Network’s “Blue Skies” Theme – Is it Right for Chuck?

  1. OldDarth says:

    Hi Aardie. You invited feedback over at ChuckThis so here you go. ;)

    Chuck does seem like a very good fit for the USA Network. The major downside with going there to my mind – and is also true of the most popular shows on network TV – is that the shows on USA tend to be conservative in their story telling arcs.

    This is most noticeable on Burn Notice. After being renewed for several seasons the show has creatively gone in a rut. Michael’s quest to rescind his Burn Notice has slowed to a glacial crawl. If it were not for Bruce Campbell and Sharon Gless this show would be dropped for my rotation. Don’t get me started on the Michael and Fiona relationship either. Fortunately for the show -whether by design or accident – their relationship is not the touchspring that Chuck and Sarah’s has become. Do viewers want Michael and Fiano together? I am guessing Yes but I am not seeing any Internet traffic suggesting it is a hotplate item.

    I can’t address most of the other shows since I don’t watch them – or quickly dropped them as they are too light for my tastes. White Collar and Covert Affairs – which I am truly enjoying – are too new yet to comment properly on.

    Since this is a ‘what if’ article, imagine Chuck starting out on the USA Network. Where would it be after 3 seasons? Would the Chuck and Sarah relationship be as advanced as it is now? My money would be no. Not even close.

    Chuck’s bubble status is a double edged sword. The show pushes the narrative hard each season and evolves the characters. I love that. It has pushed everything to a quicker evolution. Highly doubtful the same would be true if the show started out on USA.

    Granted on the plus side the Chuck and Sarah relationship would not have been become so prominent and maybe fans would be happy with a slower paced relationship dance. Would the chemistry of the two become an even bigger issue with a slower pace? Tough to say but prognosticating that Chuck and Sarah would not yet be together in a USA run at the end of Season 3 seems like a reasonable one. Especially given the operating principles of the network and evidenced by the pace of series story arcs on ALL the USA shows.

    Would the general Chuck fan trade off a more tightly crafted relationship arc with no clear consummation point in sight – and one probably saved for the very last episode – for one where they are together two/thirds of the way through Season 3?

    That is the question.

    Would the USA Network recognize the chemistry between Zac and Yvonne and allow the show to advance that relationship to allow them to be together within the first 3 seasons? One would certainly hope so but, to me, that would be a very surprising decision.

    So while there are pluses to Chuck being on USA there are pretty significant minuses too.

    The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

    Great article and thanks for sharing.

    Later!

    • aardvark7734 says:

      So I sat here and pondered your reply for awhile.

      I think that there is a good bit of truth in all of your reservations, and I actually do share them. But I think that if anything, the actual possibility of Chuck being on USA now, rather than the fantasy speculation of them having started there, is a lot more compelling fit. The budget has already been slashed since the first two seasons, so we’re already suffering from that. And Chuck and Sarah are already together, so would going to USA pull them apart? With the smell of spent fan angst still hovering in the air from last season, I’d think not.

      But you spent a lot of your reply talking about how the Chuck-Sarah relationship would have gone had Chuck originated as a USA show, so let’s discuss that for a moment. I agree with you that there’s a very good chance they’d not have been solidly committed as a couple under USA’s stewardship. But there are some other factors to consider as counter balances to that, one of which you mentioned: The “Charah” would have been brought along a bit slower and more steady, perhaps, reducing the need for resets and de-emphasizing it relative to other elements.

      What would likely be different, though, is the practical reality of their romantic relationship. Ever notice how a third of the posts complaining about the WT/WT are really about UST? Well, those would be greatly reduced on USA, if the Chuck writers followed Burn Notice’s, White Collar’s and Royal Pains‘ lead. All of the couples in those series have already slept together and will probably do so periodically. It’s not full-on, monogamous commitment, but it changes the flavor of their relationship somewhat. An interesting argument that could be made is that if the Chuck show runners had simply let Sarah and Chuck have their moment of passion in the first season, it could have been the key to relieving pent-up fan frustration and allowed the relationship to reduce to a simmer from a boil.

      But would that have defused fan interest and killed the show? I don’t think so. Burn Notice is in its fourth season already and is still pulling good ratings. White Collar and Royal Pains are in their second, and showing no signs of flagging. I think Chuck would have roared along as well.

      As I said at the end of the article, when I weigh all of the positives and negatives, the positives win out. I’ve watched all of the shows I mention in the article, and if I use them as a template for the stories that could be told in Chuck on USA, it’s still quite a rich playground. In particular, the interactions between the supporting characters that we never seem to see, like Sarah and Ellie, would be much more likely to be exploited on USA then they have been on NBC. It’s high time for that, I think.

      Anyway, thanks for your reply!

  2. Robert Dammers says:

    Wonderful. I wish I had somehting other than a phone and a stylus to expand on my agreement with just about every word!

  3. OldDarth says:

    It is only natural to spend much of the response on Chuck and Sarah because they generate most of the discussion and out of all the aspects of Chuck being affected by starting out as a USA show. Plus you have acknowledged the relationship is the primary reason you watch the show and ironically is the aspect of the show that would be most impacted by being on the USA Network.

    Would fan unrest be less if Chuck was on USA with a better handled relationship but Chuck and Sarah still apart? There is no way to discern, or even divine, the right answer.

    At best it could be stated the relationship was handled more adroitly and with less angst but the show is taking too long putting them together.

    Your point is well taken on having Chuck and Sarah having a moment of passion to relieve fan pressure. The question is do we really want to see that type of scenario with Chuck and Sarah? Some will. Some will not. Personally it would cheapen the relationship for me because I see that their relationship as something special that once started should never be broken.

    As for ratings we know that is not a true indicator of quality. As I mentioned previously, I find Burn Notice treading water because its future is secure and the need to push the story forward has been hobbled. Plus the Michael/Fiona relationship is truly an ancillary component of the show and could be dropped with minimal to no fan outcry in my analysis.

    Chuck on USA may have lead to a more angst free and mollified fan base but the cost could have been the reining in of the Chuck and Sarah chemistry. I agree with you that the fan base would not have been defused but postulate they would also not be as passionate as they are with the show on NBC.

    As for the show going to the USA now, yes that be a boon to the show in its current configuration. At this point, splitting up Chuck and Sarah would be highly unlikely. The point remains though that the show would have had to start on another network to get Chuck and Sarah where they are now. No way would they be together yet if the show started on USA.

    Great article. Awesome discussion.

    Thanks for the dialogue and platform.

  4. So, Aardie, as a thank you for all of the kind words you’ve said about me in the past, I cut you a video. That’s right, a look at what a Chuck promo on USA might look like:

    You can check it out here:

    It’s not a true promo because I don’t have the equipment for, you know, voice overs and the only one they like to linger on pre-S3 is Sarah, so I couldn’t use “USA style shots” too much, but it was still fun, and I hope you liked.

    • aardvark7734 says:

      This is just unbelievably cool, which I told you on GG, but it bears inscribing here for posterity. Thanks for the present, and I’m so glad the article inspired you to make it!

    • Baylink says:

      As much as I personally enjoy doing VOs, that spot is actually perfect the way it is, and VOing it would have messed it up. Good choice of music bed, too, though USA would never have had the budget for sync rights to that recording… :-)

      Aardvark: it’s equivocal whether you’re suggesting that the reduced budget et al would have necessitated cutting most of Buy Moria, and I can tell you, from both watching the show, and reading a lot of the best handled fanfic: it’s not Chuck without them.

  5. Pete says:

    So basically you’re saying that the suits at USA would have told Chuck’s producers to smarten up and produce a better product. In exchange we would have had a S3 with a possibly less developed Chuck/Sarah relationship, but a better more digestible show to watch?
    Count me in. I could live with that.

    • aardvark7734 says:

      That’s my contention, yeah.

      Of course, it could still have blown up spectacularly in a million different ways I couldn’t anticipate. But if, right after ‘Mask’ and ‘Fake Name’ aired, you’d given me a handle to pull that would have backed up time and put Chuck on USA right after S2, I’d have pulled it.

      Because now, it’s like S3 doesn’t exist for me before 3.13. So it’s like S3 was 7 episodes long. I feel kind of cheated, since I used to re-watch prior seasons in their entirety. But I just can’t stomach the first twelve, although I do skip around to scenes in some of them. They just remind me of being depressed about the state of the show back then, and who needs more of that in their lives? :)

  6. louzeyre says:

    I don’t think Honeymooners couldn’t have happened in 3.02 — we needed to see Chuck develop as an agent, the darker sides and all, in order to get him to that point. With the exception of how Shaw was handled (if they wanted him to be a mentor — he should have started as a mentor not a jerk) I like the fact we got to watch Chuck evolve into a spy rather than simply be one at the beginning of season 2. The “darkness” explored in Chuck’s season 3 allowed for that character development. The constant “blue skies” of the USA shows sometimes seems to make the character feel either stagnant or uncomfortably comfortable with the less savory elements of thier work. Covert Affairs is my new summer show but its just that — I summer show to keep me occupied until Chuck comes back. Burn Notice is the same way. The shows are light and fun, but despite focusing on characters, they don’t seem to push the kind of changes and developments in character which draw me into a series. Most of USA’s character may be flawed but they also seem to pop out of the package fully formed in a way I wouldn’t have liked to see on Chuck. Michael’s already been the perfect spy. Annie is unnaturally good at spy craft the moment she steps off the farm (a month early), Neil may be new to the white hats but is so smooth he still runs circles around a lot of Peter’s staff. On Chuck, we’ve seen a character go from a regular guy to spy, along with all the morally grey dilemmas that entails. For me, Chuck needed to take the journey to become a spy before he and Sarah could really get together or it wouldn’t have felt as much as they were equals in the relationship or in the partnership that developed from it.

    • aardvark7734 says:

      There’s a lot to agree with in what you say.

      I suggested Honeymooners happening as the second episode as a jest – obviously it couldn’t have just been aired “as-is” there, it wouldn’t have made much sense. And truly, I don’t have any problem with the idea that S3 needed to be spent having Chuck grow into a more mature, capable spy. It was the specific story they told, one of unrelenting despair, that I most object to. Well, that and the unconscionable damage they did to my favorite characters. When you’re midway through a season and you realize that your favorite character is Morgan, something is terribly, terribly wrong. We won’t even talk about Shaw. There’s nothing wrong with darkness along the way. It just can’t drop like a pall over the entire show for two-thirds of it’s entire season when its fans are looking for some fun along the way.

      Yes, the “Blue Skies” shows constraints make them seem stagnant at times. That everything is just a little too perfect. I’ve thought the very same thing about Neil and Peter’s relationship on White Collar. But I can’t agree with you about Covert Affairs. While Annie is doing better than she should, the last episode shows that she’s far from being a seasoned agent. And I don’t think you can classify the situation within the DPD with its various intrigues as “comfortable”.

      As to whether Chuck and Sarah need to be “equals” in every spy way is debatable. I’ve always felt that it’s the ways that they complement each other that made them such a compelling pair. Sarah is the cool, pragmatic, physical warrior while Chuck is the perceptive, compassionate thinker. They needed each other before Intersect 2.0 to fill each other’s weak spots. Chuck training to be a “super-enhanced” version of what Sarah already was just served to dilute the power of their relationship, at least it seemed that way to me.

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. Altonish says:

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. Season three never happened! Do you hear me? It NEVER happened. Other than that a really good and fascinating article.

    Thanks

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