Vulture is surprised that the USA Network rolled over the basic cable competition this year with a bunch of quirky shows that aren’t high-profile, aren’t heavily reviewed, and aren’t aggressively advertised on other networks. The network’s done something that I’ve rarely see another channel attempt, and never really thought was successful elsewhere: made watching its shows a matter not just of entertainment but of values.
Branding around “Character,” the network’s buzzword is brilliant, because it encapsulates both the network’s character-driven approach to shows like Psych, about a two-man detective agency touting a fake psychic, White Collar, about a forger working for the FBI, Burn Notice, about a double-crossed spy and Royal Pains, about a doctor who becomes a private physician to the wealthy. These shows all have plots, some of them even episode-long. But the protagonists and supporting actors are the selling points for every single original show on the network. The network also does high-minded programming, like Tom Brokaw’s American Character Along Highway 50 documentary series. And it sells very aggressively the idea that individual character, both in terms of values and personality, is both more important than race, age, religion, or any other attribute in defining a person, and that the network is a place that respects and embraces that. (The network doesn’t feature more noticeably diverse protagonists in its original programming than other channels do, though I’m fond of In Plain Sight, which stars a female U.S. Marshal dating a Latino minor league baseball player.)
The “Characters Welcome” slogan is great. The whole campaign has managed to suggest that there’s something nifty and individualist about slick and slickly advertised television programming. It’s bunk, of course. But it’s effective bunk.