If It Ain’t Broke, Just Tweak It

During the last decade, most serious television viewers and critics turned to HBO as a model for the production of cutting-edge, quality programming. Series like The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, and Curb Your Enthusiasm garnered consistent journalistic praise. I can attest to the quality of The Wire and Six Feet Under – season four of The Wire has my vote for the single best season of television aired in my lifetime. Nevertheless, HBO shows aren’t for the faint of attention; they demand careful viewing. I really had to focus while watching The Wire to catch the dialogue, and the writing and style of the show left no room for distraction. I believe David Simon might have been poking fun at his own show in season five by having the owner of the Baltimore Sun demand “Dickensian” feature pieces from his reporters.

But what if I don’t want to ponder social or moral dilemmas while watching television? What if I just want to be entertained, but not at the expense of a complete shutdown of the grey matter or having to endure another derivative procedural? Does such a middle ground exist, and should we be ashamed about liking it? Having just finished Infinite Jest, this question was fresh in my mind. The American authors Jonathan Franzen, Mark Leyner, and David Foster Wallace discussed this during a Charlie Rose interview: what is there left to write? Must a novel that is groundbreaking and artistically remarkable be difficult to read? Is television any different? The authors lamented the possibility of ever writing a scene in a precinct house: they, and most of their readers, would compare it to the “captivating” ideal as seen in, say, Law & Order. So have we milked the formulae for all they’re worth? The many poorly executed cop/lawyer, forensic science, and doctor/soap-opera shows of the last decade provide ample evidence for the affirmative.

The USA Network is perhaps the anti-HBO. Its motto, “Characters Welcome”, is an accurate description of its original shows, which include the ratings hits Psych, White Collar, and Burn Notice. They aren’t original, but they’re generally well-written, they don’t take themselves too seriously, and most of all, they’re fun to watch. There is little melodrama and much bromance. Each offers its own guilty pleasures: 80’s references, sartorial flourishes à la Thom Browne, and explosions. This is television at its slickest.

I started watching Psych about a year ago, and was immediately charmed by the banter and antics of Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster. The repartee between James Roday and Dulé Hill is fast and hilarious. It is the major contributor to the show’s lightness, helped considerably by the physical comedy, nicknames, and catchphrases (“Jerk chicken?”, “You know that’s right.”, “I’ve heard it both ways.”). The cases range from the implausible to the ridiculous, and usually involve murder; in the show, the affluent, well-educated, and sunny Santa Barbara probably has a higher per capita murder rate than Chicago. They’re largely immaterial as long as they provide fodder for Shawn and Gus’ slightly left field pop culture references. An added bonus: Corbin Bernsen.

The television critics were impressed with the pilot of White Collar; most of them classified it as It Takes a Thief meets Catch Me If You Can. The pilot was excellent: it deftly set up the procedural format of the show while developing sufficient background for and interest in the characters. The subsequent episodes have suffered somewhat in the plot department: the “procedural” part of the show isn’t adequately engaging, and it doesn’t have the excuse of silliness as in Psych to make up for it. However, the overarching mystery of Neal’s girlfriend, Kate, functions well as a glue connecting the episodes. I hope the writing will improve as the show finds its footing.

Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer are great as the stereotypical television odd couple: DeKay is Peter Burke, the straight-laced, somewhat stodgy FBI lawman and Bomer is Neal Caffrey, the loose, creative, fashionable con man. The actors capably portray their characters’ balance of wariness, trust, respect and admiration for the other. New York City functions as a sort of third major character in the show: some of the locations (Peter’s guest house, the rooftop garden) are breathtaking. It must cost the network some change to rent them for filming.

I’ve caught Burn Notice from time to time on the television, and have enjoyed watching Michael Westen and company pull the rug out from under the bad guys. By tweaking formulae, USA has successfully carved out a niche for itself in the television world among the serious HBO and AMC, the reality of MTV, TLC, and Bravo, and the (mostly) conventional major broadcasters. But the best part about USA shows? I don’t feel guilty watching them.

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