USA is sometimes seen as the network equivalent of a punchline. I don’t blame viewers for treating it as a joke, especially considering its penchant for pun-tastic show titles like Fairly Legal (about a sort of lawyer), Common Law (about police partners who go to couples therapy), and the impossible-to-google Suits (about lawyers who wear suits while also dealing with lawsuits, get it?). This is all laughable, but unfortunately it means that the network’s better programs often go overlooked.
USA falls into the trap of many ignored networks. Because of its mediocre reputation, people — critics and viewers both — tend to hastily qualify their recommendations. “Suits is good … for a USA show.” It’s a way to guiltily enjoy a show without fully committing to your enjoyment: remove it from the bigger television world and place it into a smaller one. But the truth is, USA has been on a steady grind of producing quality for years now. Here is a look at the shows that you should be watching.
Psych is USA’s biggest win, its most massively popular show right now. It’s centered on crime consultant Shawn Spencer (James Roday), who has honed his detective and observational skills enough to convince people that he’s a psychic. Think: the lighter version of The Mentalist (the show doesn’t skimp on making jokes comparing the two). Psych was a hit from day one — it had the highest-rated basic cable premiere — and has gone on to become USA’s longest-running original series currently on air.
The case-of-the-week style allows viewers to enjoy an episode here and there out of context, while the longer arcs (like the Yin/Yang series) engage longtime fans. Psych is silly on the surface but surprisingly clever upon digging a little deeper. There is a sweet romance at the center, a great friendship between Shawn and Gus (Dule Hill) that occasionally leads to singing, and gimmick episodes that help the show stand out from the other crime-related dramas on television.
Psych is currently in its eighth and final season — the finale is one of our must-see March events — and it’s definitely going to be missed by both fans and the network.
I’m guilty of almost writing off Suits based solely on its title. Still, curiosity got the best of me (it certainly helps that the two leads are incredibly attractive), and now it’s one of my favorite shows on any network. Suits is that oh-so-classic story of a stoner-turned-fake lawyer: Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a bike messenger with an eidetic memory. While avoiding the cops during a drug deal gone bad, he accidentally ends up in an interview with Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) to become an associate at a prestigious law firm — and gets the job, despite not having a law degree. It’s a ridiculous and unbelievable setup, but it’s easy to accept this show’s reality.
Sure, Suits is a typical law show, but there is a lot happening: the ever-looming threat of various people exposing Mike Ross’ secret, the wars between law firms (and within this specific law firm), the world of mistreated associates, the numerous love stories, the flawless character of Donna (Sarah Rafferty), conversations riddled with pop culture references, and a mentor/mentee relationship between Mike and Harvey that adds some heart to a tale of cutthroat lawyers.
Graceland is the newest USA drama, airing a short, 12-episode season over last summer. Story-wise, it has the most intriguing premise of the current slate of USA shows, though that mostly has to do with the fact that it’s based in reality. Graceland follows a group of federal agents who are deep undercover and living together in a house in California. It’s a premise that is built for USA original programs. Attractive and complicated leads? Check. A large, beautiful residence in a beachside location? Check. A dark, druggy, crime world at the center? Check. It is everything that USA could ever dream of: hot people toting guns and running around on a beach.
There is no doubt that Graceland — which will soon return for a second season — can be shallow as hell, but that’s part of what makes it so fun. The pilot was a strong start and thoroughly interesting, immediately catching viewers’ attention. There was a slight decline as the first season progressed, but there is something wonderfully trashy about it, even within the more intense storylines. It also features some fine acting, especially from notable theater actor Aaron Tveit.
Granted, Sirens only premiered last week, but even with just those two episodes, it has already cemented itself as one of USA’s must-see programs. Though USA includes comedic elements in all of its dramas, Sirens is unique for the network in that it’s a straight half-hour comedy. The show follows around three EMTs: the two veterans and lifelong friends, Johnny (Michael Mosley from Scrubs) and Hank (Kevin Daniels), and the new recruit, Kevin (Brian Czyk), who is trying to learn the ropes.
Sirens largely deals with the three guys balancing their work and home lives (saving lives while trying to mend broken relationships!), but it’s much funnier than one would expect, and decidedly lighter than co-creator Denis Leary’s previous show, Rescue Me. You can easily see Leary’s touch all over the place here, with the requisite crude jokes — these three men, two straight and one gay, love to talk sex, to make dick jokes, and to discuss the nuances of porn categories — and Leary makes the most of his late-night, USA time slot (much like Suits, where the writers have to get at least one character yelling “Shit!” into every episode). It’s definitely bro-ish in genre, but never too much, and its side characters help make everything a little more well-rounded.
Royal Pains sounds the absolute blandest on paper: a former ER doctor is blacklisted (who knew that happened?) and moves to the Hamptons to treat (and cavort with) super-rich people. Yet it’s managed to last five seasons, put out a two-hour TV movie, and is already renewed through a sixth season. It’s a show that really resonates with viewers — Royal Pains‘ ratings have always been solid, and its premiere ended up breaking Psych‘s debut record — because it’s a great diversion from reality.
Like most USA dramas, Royal Pains does have its dark side. There is some heavy relationship drama, a character who deals with a huge family split due to her stance against her culture’s arranged marriages, and a strange, long arc featuring a wealthy man’s mysterious genetic disease, which he longs to cure before he passes it on to anyone else.
Mostly, though, it’s pure entertainment. Hank is the MacGyver of doctors, who often uses found objects to save someone’s life during an emergency. The show loves its endless-summer setting, its pastel clothing, and its rich and famous (and often eccentric) clients. It also loves guest stars: Mary Lynn Rajskub, Tony Hale, Wilmer Valderrama, Frances Conroy, and Danny Pudi have all appeared, while Donal Logue, Henry Winkler, and Tom Cavanagh have been recurring stars.
In addition to those five shows, USA has a handful of other great programs. White Collar, starring the devastatingly handsome Matt Bomer as a con artist, had a few stellar, twisty seasons during its earlier years. It was the first show that broke the “good for a USA program” mold and was hailed as being good on its own — largely due to the chemistry between its main characters Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) and Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer). Covert Affairs has gone the opposite route: the first few seasons were severely lacking, but the show has found steady footing by exploring the relationships between its main characters.
The network has been home to WWE’s Monday Night Raw since 1993 (save for a break from 2000-2005 when it temporarily jumped ship to TNT). Raw, a spectacle that is more addictive than all of USA’s original programs combined, will outlive us all.
USA also has a fun mix of past programming available on Netflix: Monk, arguably the network’s breakout hit, ran for eight seasons and gave Tony Shalhoub three Emmys for Best Actor; Political Animals, a six-episode 2012 miniseries starring Sigourney Weaver as a divorced First Lady; Burn Notice, the immensely popular spy thriller that blew everyone’s expectations out of the water; and The Dead Zone, the sci-fi show based on Stephen King’s novel and starring Anthony Michael Hall.