An Ode to USA Network

An Ode to USA Network

I’ve never gone out of my way to watch so-called “prestige television,” the defining attributes of which seem to be terrible lighting, an air of self-seriousness and self-importance, at least one middle-aged white man Going Through It, and more exposed boobs than seems necessary for the plot. Part of my slight aversion to shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Succession stems from my being a dumdum who is constantly overwhelmed by the world and who appreciates clicking her brain off for long stretches of time; part of it is my suspicion of anything promoted as having more inherent value than their supposedly inferior cousins. I am sure all of the aforementioned TV shows are good, well-written, even entertaining, but no thank you.

Prestige television practically begs you to have an opinion on it beyond whether it was an enjoyable way to pass the time while you make dinner or before you nod off for the day—its reason for existence demands that you have a take on it as art and as social commentary, and then discuss it endlessly with other people in your life. (Is Daenarys a boss bitch or an imperialist monarch? Who cares! And maybe she’s both!!!) How exhausting (to me) when all I want when I’m glued to my screen most of the time is to not think and maybe have a laugh or two, or a low-stakes cry, or feel an easy emotional investment in characters that I can then quickly put aside once the credits roll. Life is already full of enough suffering! All of which to say—I fucking love USA Network, a deep and abiding love that I once felt ashamed of but no longer, because what is embarrassing about a love that is so pure and so true?

To be more precise, my unwavering devotion is to a specific era of USA Network’s television offerings—that brief but wonderful golden age that began with Psych, which first aired in 2006, and ended with the debut of Suits in 2011, a five-year period that also gave us the underappreciated gifts of Burn Notice, as well as White Collar. My foray into the world of USA Network began with Psych, on the encouragement of a friend who promised me that I would appreciate both its sharp wit and its exploration of the tender relationship between its two main characters, Shawn and Gus. A smart buddy comedy full of sweet notes, friends who go on adventures and solve mysteries together, learning life lessons along the way, like a sort of updated, more clever Winnie the Pooh—what’s not to love? (On an unrelated note, Psych lived so that Happy Endings could thrive, if only for a glorious moment.)

I began—and this is where my embarrassment crept in—telling people in my life that they absolutely must watch Burn Notice.

After becoming a PyschO, I decided to check out USA Network’s other offerings and quickly became hooked. If Pysch was like a deeply pleasing joint at the end of the day that made the world seem both softer and more fun, Burn Notice, about a former spy who is forced to go back home to Miami and make a living as a PI while simultaneously investigating who “burned” him, was like a nice cold Bud Light (yes, please feel free to judge me for my beer of choice)—fizzy, slightly sour, but still refreshing. Less satisfying but still compulsively watchable were White Collar, about a con artist and thief turned FBI crime solver, and Suits, a show which gave the world Meghan Markle and a very hot Gina Torres playing—and I say this with only admiration—a stone-cold bitch.

I began—and this is where my embarrassment crept in—telling people in my life that they absolutely must watch Burn Notice, or White Collar, or (slightly less enthusiastically, to be honest) Suits. They were so good! So fun! Such a comforting escape! But these recommendations were usually met with a laugh, tinged with confusion. Why would they watch USA Network when there was so much “good” TV out there? Was my taste somehow “bad,” and if it was, did I care? What was taste anyway? USA Network wasn’t going to ever win any awards for production quality—their budgets were as modest as their ambitions—but why let someone else’s opinions dictate what I enjoyed?

Their loss! These shows were like a warm, soothing bath. During my USA Network years, my days were filled with endless mini catastrophes that I couldn’t resolve; anxiety always hummed in the background. My job as a housing organizer featured what felt like a neverending stream of people coming through the doors of the organization I worked for with eviction notices in their hands. I was coming to terms with an underlying medical condition I had unknowingly lived with all my life that had only recently been diagnosed. Life, in short, sucked, but on these shows, life also sucked, but always got better. The worlds they conjured were full of mayhem, but their edges were dulled to the point they couldn’t break through the skin. Problems, no matter how dire, could all be solved, largely satisfactorily. Their appeal was obvious. They were funny without a laugh track and the tired conventions of network sitcoms; the dramas were just absurd enough that it was easy to divorce them from the very real problems they purported to reflect.

Or maybe I’m overthinking it, trying to come up with a justification for something that needs no justification. Lately, I’ve started rewatching Psych and Burn Notice (again), like a kindergartner returning to sucking her thumb during uncertain times. A small pleasure while the world burns.

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