USA Network Is Searching for a New Identity — Will It Find One in ‘Satisfaction’?

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The backyard of the Satisfaction set is indoors, which makes it immediately disorienting. The trees look real from afar, but up close it’s obvious that they’re one-dimensional. There are real leaves on the ground, but the grass is artificial turf. All television sets are optical illusions, yet Satisfaction’s, in Atlanta, seems more like a lie than most — which is fitting considering the subject matter. The murky drama follows the troubled relationship of a married couple, examining the ever-increasing list of lies that surround their family, threatening to tear it apart at any second. It looks like it could be the next brooding Sunday-night AMC hit, but it’s actually premiering on USA today.

In the pilot episode, Neil Truman (Matt Passmore) is teetering on the edge of a midlife crisis when he arrives home to find his wife Grace (Stephanie Szostak) cheating on him with a male escort. Rather than confront her, he goes after the young guy and accidentally ends up with his phone — which leads him to entertain the idea of becoming an escort himself.

On the surface, it’s definitely a USA program: a wealthy white man finds himself in an unconventional situation that lends itself well to standalone episodes — maybe, week-to-week, we’ll see Neil visiting a different client while keeping this new lifestyle a secret from his wife and separate from his corporate job. But that doesn’t seem to be the direction that USA is pursuing with its recent slate of original programming, Satisfaction included. Instead, the network now appears to be interested in telling darker and more character-based stories, perhaps trying to throw its name into the prestige-drama ring, where its basic-cable rivals like AMC and FX currently compete.

USA, despite its “Characters Welcome” slogan, has often prioritized wacky premises over character-driven stories: a lawyer who hasn’t passed the bar (Suits), a detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Monk), a con artist who teams up with an FBI agent (White Collar), and so on. Many USA shows that started off gimmicky have gone on to deepen their characters — Suits is particularly engaging and, at times, Monk could be a bit heartbreaking — but surface-level entertainment almost always wins out over emotional character beats.

Royal Pains

It is a formula that has generally worked for the network. The fans who love USA shows really love USA shows, and from a business standpoint, USA’s ratings are certainly impressive. It topped the list of most-watched basic cable channels in 2013. It occasionally wins the week for adults 18-49 in primetime (as it has done for the last three weeks), beating out even the big four broadcast networks. It should be mentioned that a large portion of its viewership tunes in for WWE’s Monday Night Raw, a wildly popular staple on the network, but that hardly takes away from the success of USA’s original programming. During its first season, in 2009, Royal Pains, a simplistic show about a doctor in the Hamptons, averaged 5.95 million total viewers (that same year, AMC’s Mad Men never rose to 3 million). In 2008, the pilot of In Plain Sight (about a US Marshal working in the Witness Protection Program) saw 5.25 million viewers; the Breaking Bad pilot, a few months earlier, had 1.4.

The one thing USA doesn’t get much of is respect; the network goes largely ignored by both critics and the Emmys. Multiple USA shows and actors were submitted for Emmy consideration this year; none earned a nomination. (A notable exception is the soapy 2012 political miniseries Political Animals, another change of pace for the network, which was nominated for five Emmys last year. It had the luck of including some Academy favorites — Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Burstyn — and being categorized as a miniseries, not drama.) Though critics — myself included — usually check in to review pilot episodes, it’s still rare that USA shows get the week-to-week recap treatment or are discussed and dissected with a critical eye.

Even as it goes grittier and more “adult,” with shows like Graceland (a 2013 series about a group of undercover agents that has tackled alcoholism and drug addiction), the network still hasn’t managed to join its cable counterparts in the cultural conversation. A legal drama like Suits, which at its height I would have placed alongside some of AMC’s and HBO’s offerings, still often gets the “It’s good for a USA show” qualifier, signifying that USA is still an outlier network.

If you look closely at the programs USA has offered up in recent years, both the hits and misses, it’s clear that the network is struggling to find its place in the television world. Along with its new dramas, USA has recently made some attempts at comedy: Sirens, a show that centers on EMTs and therefore fits in with the light doctor dramas, premiered in March and has already been renewed for a second season. April saw the debut of Playing House, the (unfortunately low-rated) fan favorite built on a premise that was off-brand for the network: a woman moves back home to help her pregnant best friend prepare for the birth of her child. It hasn’t been renewed or canceled, but its future isn’t looking good.

Chrisley Knows Best

Last summer, USA dipped its toes into the reality pool, with the boring competition show Summer Camp, about strangers at a summer camp vying for money, and Chrisley Knows Best, which follows a millionaire and his family. Summer Camp sought success through tapping into adults’ secret desires to return to summer camp, but it proved too formulaic and was canceled. What viewers see in Chrisley Knows Best is something of a mystery to me — though I had breakfast with the Chrisley family while in Atlanta and can attest that they’re a natural fit for the rich-family reality show genre: golden hair, perfect posture, pageant-ready rehearsed smiles, and adorable Southern politeness occasionally undercut by familial arguments about fancy cars and curfews. Their show was renewed for a second season, likely because it’s the network’s youngest-skewing original series, with an average age of 35.

With these series, it’s hard to figure out what exactly USA’s strategy is. It’s possible they’re attempting to become a more well-rounded network — AMC now has reality shows, while FX/FXX is a nice mix of comedy and drama — but the eclectic mess of pickups (which now include the legal comedy Benched and a conspiracy thriller “event series” set in Jerusalem titled Dig) doesn’t make sense. I reached out to the network to discuss their strategy and was promised an email interview with programming executives who deal with the reality/comedy genres. Shortly after I sent questions, I was told that no one was available to answer them, but a press manager repeatedly assured me that the network’s focus is still very much on drama. (USA then told me I’d be able to chat with someone on the drama side, but that follow-up email went unanswered.)

It’s true that the network’s commitment to drama has never wavered. For a while, USA continued on the track of fun, lighthearted dramas (generally involving cops, lawyers, or doctors), but its two most obnoxiously titled shows — 2011’s Fairly Legal (about a lawyer who becomes a mediator) and 2012’s Common Law (mismatched detective partners go to couples therapy) — failed to connect with viewers and were both canceled, likely because they didn’t do enough to distinguish themselves from current and past USA programming. Cory Barker, a contributor to TV.com who has previously covered USA, agrees that redundancy has been a problem for the network. He also suggested, via email, that the conclusions of other popular USA programs may have pushed the network to consider a different direction:

It’s possible that [USA] saw the failures of that last string of “USA shows” — your Common Laws, your Fairly Legals — as a sign that people were tired of the formula. That, combined with the conclusion of stuff like Burn Notice and Psych, maybe gave them the inspiration to try something different sooner rather than later. Get ahead of the curve before the audience leaves in droves.

Psych and Burn Notice were both huge hits for the network. Burn Notice, which ended in 2013, remained solid in the ratings throughout its run but didn’t need to overstay its welcome. Psych had begun to fizzle out, unsure of what to do with its characters, and its ratings steadily declined until its finale, earlier this year.

So, what does a network do when its staples — popular juggernauts that both anchored and defined the network in the 21st century — have come to an end, and when its core audience is rejecting the same formulas that they once adored? And what does a network do when it’s courting but not getting critical recognition or awards? The network has to adapt and find a way to launch new, different shows that aren’t so far from the established brand that they risk alienating the existing audience. And here’s the biggest challenge: the shows have to be good.

Rush, the other “dark” USA drama that premieres tonight, is the expected summer premiere from the network: a medical thriller — House, but with richer patients and harder drugs than pain pills — with the laughable tagline, “Good Doctor. Bad Habits.” and a poster (above) that resembles an advertisement for a bottle service at a night club. But Satisfaction, airing directly after Rush, is the one to watch. On top of its technical superiority (its writing, acting, and cinematography are all far better than Rush‘s), it’s the show that noticeably departs from the network’s clichés, and the one that is most representative of USA’s change in tone.

Satisfaction is more concerned with exploring its characters than it is with presenting a light, improbable premise. The members of the Truman family — including their teen daughter Anika (Michelle DeShon) — are surprisingly well developed in the pilot, with hints at their hidden depths and the secrets that will be revealed throughout the season. While watching that first episode, which centers on the questionable actions and dilemmas that threaten to derail a marriage, I couldn’t help but conclude that Satisfaction is USA’s conscious attempt at a prestige drama. It’s a reflection of what’s becoming popular on other networks — darker narratives, antiheroes, moral quandaries, and nontraditional relationships — and, of course, what’s winning those awards.

Last month, when I visited the Satisfaction set, the cast members were eager to talk about what separates their show from everything else we’ve seen on TV. It isn’t another story about a man having a midlife crisis, who screws a bunch of women while trying to figure his own shit out — it’s “more of an awakening,” Stephanie Szostak says. (Though, yes, it does seem like Neil will screw a bunch of women.) It also isn’t, as I’d originally imagined, a Hung-style show about the silly hijinks of a corporate guy juggling a double life as an escort. Matt Passmore, the show’s lead, elaborates on the inevitable comparison to the HBO show: “I’d see Hung and when I first went in and spoke to the producers, I said, ‘Is this another Hung? ‘Cause if it is, I’m not interested.'” He later clarifies, “This isn’t a show about, ‘Oh, what girls is he going to have this week?’ It’s not that sort of procedural.”

This small distinction, on a single show, speaks volumes about the changes USA is going through. If Satisfaction premiered a few years ago, it would surely have relied solely on the male escort narrative, rather than using it as an easy excuse to tackle the bigger, deeper issues at play.

Satisfaction’s Anika (Michelle DeShon) and Grace (Stephanie Szostak)

Neil and Grace are complex characters, both equally at fault for their marital troubles, and both harboring some serious secrets that could ruin it forever. There is more at stake here than in the average USA show: what’s being exposed as a fake lawyer — or a fake psychic — compared with the complete dissolution of a family? Satisfaction seems particularly concerned with crafting realistic female characters, a rarity for USA. As much as I adore Suits, it’s always had a problem with Rachel, who, for a while, was a paralegal seemingly doomed to professional failure because her storylines revolved around the lawyer she crushed on. Other USA shows haven’t done much better; women on White Collar and Royal Pains are generally underwritten and, well, you can probably guess what the female lead of a show titled Fairly Legal was like.

Satisfaction has three well-written women at its core: Grace, the wife who seeks out pleasure as an escape from an unfulfilling life and goes on her own personal journey; Anika, the strong-willed teen daughter who, in the pilot’s funniest scene, publicly calls out her two teachers’ sordid affair during a talent show; and Adriana (Katherine LaNasa), the fascinating “pimp” or “madam” of the show. As LaNasa notes, Adriana “doesn’t seem to believe in monogamy… It’s very powerful. Whenever women don’t need men, they get the upper hand.”

Adriana’s approach to men and sex is crucial; it’s a point of view that we have yet to see on this network — and one that even remains rare on other networks. But LaNasa is also quick to explain that Adriana isn’t characterized solely by her job, just as the show isn’t just about the male escort nonsense. Instead, she says, Adriana is a “jack of all trades, a deviant. I think the madam thing is more of a deviation than a necessity.”

Characters like Adriana, combined with the show’s serious approach to its themes, are what make the Satisfaction premiere so compelling. The first episode is my favorite USA pilot since 2011’s Suits, and though I’m a bit apprehensive about the sustainability of the narrative (it might make a better miniseries), I’m looking forward to the rest of the season. The show has a hook that should successfully pull in viewers, and if it delivers on its ambitions, it could become the new blueprint for future USA dramas. In fact, it seems fitting that Passmore tells me Satisfaction is about people’s different ways of finding their identity — because it’s certainly the most exciting example to date of USA’s search for a new identity of its own.