USA Network’s “Royal Pains” aired its series finale Wednesday after a solid eight-season run. But unlike most mediocre cable dramas that end these days, this one has an extra significance: With the departure of “Royal Pains,” USA is one step closer to officially slamming the door on its “blue-skies” era, which has defined the network for the last decade.
For the unfamiliar, “blue-sky shows” is the colloquialism for USA’s past slate of breezy dramas, including “Burn Notice” (investigators in Miami); “In Plain Sight” (witness protection program in Albuquerque); “Psych” (cops in Santa Barbara, Calif.); “White Collar” (FBI in New York); “Cover Affairs” (CIA in Washington); “Necessary Roughness” (athletes in New York); and more. “Royal Pains,” about doctors in the Hamptons, fell squarely into this category.
Now, with the departure of “Royal Pains” and the rapid aging of “Suits” (lawyers in New York), USA is doubling down on darker, more intense scripted shows. While it’s been moving in this direction for the last several years, the network only recently dropped its famous “Characters Welcome” tag line for an entire brand overhaul, going with the new motto “We the Bold.” Leading the charge for this new chapter at USA is “Mr. Robot,” the successful freshman drama about vigilante Web hackers that won the Golden Globe this year for best drama; the second season premieres July 13.
If the premise for “Mr. Robot” sounds bleak, that’s intentional. In April, Variety reported that the network, in looking to target millennials, found the age group now has a “darker and grittier” mood and craves shows that reflect it. “With so much competition, your brand needs to stand for something,” NBCUniversal marketing vice president Alexandra Shapiro said. “‘We the Bold’ is better aligned with the new mainstream. Viewers want more of a wild ride.”
It’s no surprise USA is trying to change the narrative. The indistinguishable (but highly rated) USA dramas are a running joke in pop culture, starting with the viral “Saturday Night Live” sketch in 2010 featuring a game show called “What is ‘Burn Notice?'” A host implores contestants to describe literally anything about the “immensely popular” show. The contestants stare blankly and hazard guesses: “A show about handsome firemen?” “A sexy doctor who can start fires with his mind?” Even seeing a commercial for the series gives no clues: “Is it a reality show about sunglasses?” one ventures.
The joke even continued last month as the most recent season of “Orange is the New Black” featured a scene of the inmates discussing USA programming in prison, trying to figure out one particular show: “Are they lawyers or are they FBI guys?” “The FBI guys were in Miami.” “Uh, that’s not Miami, it’s Long Island.” “Mmm-mmm. He’s a doctor. Or maybe CIA.” “So nobody’s a lawyer?” Finally, one inmate pipes up, totally confused: “Man, I thought that was just one long show.”
Still, as USA has gone toward the more serious fare over the last few years, the series have been hit-or-miss: For every “Mr. Robot,” there’s a “Complications,” a medical drama canceled after one season. Same with “Dig” and “Rush,” both dramas canceled shortly after they started. However, sci-fi drama “Colony” has been picked up for a second season. “Queen of the South,” about a woman trying to bring down a Mexican drug ring, is currently airing; “Shooter,” starring Ryan Phillippe as an ex-Marine sniper, premieres in two weeks.
Plus, there’s the challenge of figuring out which shows will continue to get ratings in today’s ultra-competitive TV business. According to Variety, “Mr. Robot” averaged about 2.8 million viewers in its first season. The premiere of “Queen of the South” last month earned about 1.4 million viewers (not including on-demand or online viewing). While it’s a very different time from when “Burn Notice” could land 9 million viewers for an episode in 2009, the numbers still matter: “Sirens,” about EMTs in Chicago, was canceled after averaging 1.1 million viewers last year.
Either way, USA is optimistic about the new direction. Because even as early as 2011, the network realized it should start to expand from the formula.
“Anyone who has success with a specific thing probably becomes a little sensitized to it because people are always parroting it back,” USA co-president Jeff Wachtel told the Hollywood Reporter. “Our joke on the scripted side is, ‘If we hear one more surfing-detective pitch, we’re going to kill ourselves.’ So it’s not that we’re not that, it’s that we like to believe we’re more than that.”