Do you want to watch something smart or brainless? That seems to be the choice these days. HBO churns out dramas like White Lotus and Succession that will make you think, but you don't always want to contemplate class warfare on a weeknight. Alternatively, there's the ever-growing glut of reality television on Netflix that is made so cheaply and quickly you'll feel as if you're losing brain cells by just clicking on the preview. This is the state of TV—especially during the summer doldrums—and with no end in sight for either the writers' and actors' strikes, we could be in for a paltry fall as well.
And yet on many streaming services, the most-watched shows are the few dramedies that fall somewhere on the spectrum between mindless and mindful. They often hail from a bygone era and usually offer viewers dozens, if not hundreds, of episodes. Streamers like Netflix, Amazon, and Peacock often get into bidding wars over content produced well over a decade ago in hopes that a new audience will rediscover the pleasures of older TV.
The latest example is Suits, which originally premiered on the USA Network in 2011. The show has been previously available on Peacock, but reached new heights when it dropped on Netflix on June 17. The series—best known for launching the career of former-royal Meghan Markle—has broken several streaming records with 12.8 billion minutes viewed across Netflix and Peacock in the last four weeks. It's the most watched title ever acquired by a streaming service, according to Nielsen. (In a coup for Peacock, the ninth and final season is available exclusively on that streamer.)
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Critics and industry analysts have offered many theories as to why Suits is so successful: Casual royals watchers are seeing Markle's photo pop up on their Netflix app and clicking out of curiosity; Netflix dropped eight seasons of the show at once, the perfect way to fill long summer days; it's the "Netflix effect" in action, boosting once-ignored series like You and Breaking Bad by making them accessible.
But these stories largely dismiss Suits as a forgettable show riding on Markle's fashionable coattails. I would argue Suits is actually pretty good, the kind of middlebrow TV networks don't make anymore. Is it going to win a ton of Emmys or make you think deeply? Definitely not. But it's also not mind-numbing dreck. It's the perfect background show. Not only does it run for nearly 84 hours, but it strikes the perfect balance between drama and predictability.
It falls into a category I call the "ludicrous procedural." It can be at once utterly thrilling and totally mundane. It's exactly the kind of show Netflix needs.
What is the ludicrous procedural?
You're sick of debating what to watch with your partner or roommates every night. You need a go-to weeknight show to flip on while cooking dinner or folding laundry. Let's say you want to binge something lighter than prestige TV shows like The Wire and The Sopranos but heftier than Selling Sunset. You're craving plot, but not one you have to track too carefully.
Classic sitcoms like Friends or The Office can provide weeks or months' worth of bingeing material, but at a certain point they feel too formulaic. There are no surprises. By definition, sitcom characters do not evolve or mature too much or the show will have to end. Ross and Rachel will never be done with each other, and Dwight will never stop making awkward comments about beets.
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A procedural might be up your alley: Predictable but with the occasional twist. Shows like Law & Order: SVU or ER offer an absurd number of episodes, but they're so intense and will wear you down. And you actually have to pay attention to something more concerned with the state of the world, like The Good Wife or The West Wing, in order to keep track of the political and romantic relationships and how it all factors into season-long arcs.
Suits hits a sweet spot. The plots are silly, but never dumb. The dialogue may make you roll your eyes, but it's clever just often enough. You can look down at your computer to answer emails for a 40-minute span, look back up again, and you haven't missed anything particularly significant. And yet something dramatic and entertaining is happening.
It's the same reason that Grey's Anatomy has proven so popular for 19 seasons. Everything is extremely high stakes—literally life or death—at Seattle Grace Hospital, and yet it's not so serious. At one point Katherine Heigl's character talked to a ghost. (Fun fact: Heigl eventually replaced Markle on Suits after the latter left to marry Prince Harry.)
Netflix often touts the notion that it wants to make "gourmet cheeseburger" shows that are both premium and commercial at the same time. I suspect that when Netflix executives make that argument, they have something like Suits in mind.
The insane Suits premise is part of its appeal
The premise of Suits, if you stop to think about it, is bonkers. The pilot episode—which for reasons that I cannot possibly fathom clocks in at 90 minutes—introduces us to Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), an orphan with a perfect memory. Despite being a genius, he was kicked out of college after doing a favor for his deadbeat friend. Mike makes a living taking the LSAT for other people in exchange for cash. The aforementioned wastrel friend, now a drug dealer, asks Mike to do him a favor: Deliver a briefcase of pot to a hotel room.
Mike deploys his immense powers of observation to suss out that his buyers are actually cops and runs into a a suite where a law firm is conducting interviews to evade capture. There he meets Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), a cocky lawyer who wears really, really nice suits. Harvey, charmed that Mike can recite case law by heart and unperturbed by the fact that Mike's suitcase pops open, spilling weed on the floor, hires him. This is an insane decision because 1) Mike didn't go to law school at all and 2) this particular law firm only hires lawyers who went, specifically, to Harvard Law School. (This policy proves very strange to anyone who takes a peek at law school rankings. But the writers get to spend the next nine years cracking a lot of Harvard jokes.)
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Mike will be thrown in jail and Harvey will be disbarred if Mike's secret is ever discovered. On his first day, Mike meets a paralegal named Rachel Zane (Markle!). They flirt, and he learns that she is incredibly smart and desperately wants to be a lawyer, but is terrible at taking tests. She can't get a good score on the LSAT. You can probably guess where that plot is headed.
Every dozen or so episodes, someone new finds out Mike is not a real lawyer and needs to be bribed, blackmailed, or brought into the cabal of secret-keepers for this mediocre white man who happens to have a photographic memory. Is it believable? No. Does it conveniently provide a fail-safe plot device to stir up intrigue at the end of a season? Absolutely.
The comfort of the procedural
Once you get into the groove of the show, you quickly learn the beats. It's a buddy comedy: Harvey teaches Mike how to be a closer, and Mike teaches Harvey to exercise his long-buried empathy. It's a procedural: Each episode, a lawyer takes a case they think will be easy, but—surprise—there's some major roadblock that they'll overcome by the end of the episode. And it's a soap: One of the lawyers is always sleeping with someone ill-advised like a client or an opposing attorney or a paralegal.
Even by the standards of a workplace drama, the firm of Pearson Hardman is highly chaotic. It changes its name every few episodes as various attorneys backstab and blackmail to obtain the status of name partner, which frankly seems like a massive marketing problem. But the show's bloat is the point. In an era of slim seasons with just a handful of episodes, the endless ups and downs of one cast of characters has an undeniable appeal. Even if the revelations are usually predictable, there's a certain dopamine hit that comes with correctly guessing how Mike and Harvey will squirm out of a particular jam. Surprises are welcome, but only on occasion. Sometimes TV tries to twist itself in knots trying to spring the unexpected on its audience—just ask Game of Thrones.
Just enough prestige touches
Suits is not prestige TV. But it does borrow elements from that golden era of television.
As Matt Zoller Seitz once pointed out in his review in Vulture, "There are no dumb or weak characters, just smart sharks." Harvey's secretary Donna (Sarah Rafferty) is whip-smart. The managing partner of the firm (Gina Torres) never has the wool pulled over her eyes. Even the jealous and socially awkward character of Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman), a sometimes-antagonist-sometimes-hapless-sidekick to Harvey, is a whiz at tax law.
One-liners are the show's bread and butter. “We’re like two fingers of the same hand,” Louis tells Harvey in a bid for peace over dinner one night. “As long as I’m the index,” Harvey shoots back. Like the rest of the show, the banter lends itself to half-listening.
It also helps that Suits looks good. Every time you do glance at the screen, you'll be greeted by beautiful people in immaculately tailored suits strutting through a perfectly appointed midcentury modern office. Yet the show somehow manages to add depth to its seemingly surface sartorial choices. Mike's wardrobe gradually becomes more expensive and fitted as he insinuates himself into the world of white-shoe law firms and changes slightly during his brief stint as an investment banker. At one point, Donna susses out Louis' secret promotion after she remembers he bragged years ago he'd wear a certain Brioni suit after making senior partner.
Every few episodes, you'll also find yourself pointing at the screen, like Leo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, at the sudden appearance of a famous person. Justified's Margo Martindale, Game of Thrones' Conleth Hill, and The Wire's Wendell Pierce (recurring every few episodes as Rachel's father) capture and hold your attention just when you were getting bored with the usual cast. (In a curious yet charming script choice, the pop culture-obsessed Mike often quotes The Wire when Pierce's character is out of the room.)
In his review, Seitz points out major overlaps with a much more lauded workplace drama of the same era: Mad Men. The two shows often shared directors. And they are actually interested in a lot of the same office politics, from complicated gender and race dynamics to the corrupting power of wealth. But while Mad Men left viewers feeling exhausted (if philosophically fulfilled), Suits always left its audience with a big smile. Nowadays, bingeing Mad Men feels like a project. Bingeing Suits feels like a diversion.
What we lost when we lost "blue sky" shows
They don't make them like this anymore. But why not? The devolution of the USA Network, where Suits first aired, tells the story of a flailing medium.
The network was once moderately successful in terms of its pop culture footprint. Monk was its biggest hit. But even the lesser-watched shows like Suits, Psych, Burn Notice and Royal Pains were, for me at least, a staple of childhood boredom. The New York Times once wrote that the cheery network "seems to have a mandate to uplift the national mood, to appeal to the fantasy of second chances and second opportunities." A Harvard fraud gets to practice law in New York; a fake psychic ingratiates himself with the Santa Barbara police by solving mysteries; a disavowed spy goes freelance in Miami to fight mobsters and con artists; and a doctor wrongfully blamed for the death of a patient reinvents himself as a concierge doctor in the Hamptons.
The locales were usually beachy: Even Suits' New York manages to hide the Big Apple's drearier streets—probably because it was filmed in Toronto. Inevitably, these hucksters and screw-ups used their particular talents to help the needy.
USA Network pivoted away from its "blue skies" programming in the 2010s when the rise of series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black at Netflix challenged traditional networks to enter the prestige TV race. For several years, USA Network pursued awards—or at least internet chatter— with grittier series like Mr. Robot, The Sinner, and Dirty John.
With the exception of Mr. Robot, which did get a few nominations and launched Rami Malek's career, USA failed to compete with the increasingly dominant streamers in the prestige space. It no longer makes original series. The NBC Universal subsidiary airs mostly reruns and reality TV, essentially killed off by the likes of Netflix, Disney+, and NBC's own streaming service Peacock.
Counterintuitively, the death of networks like USA is bad news for Netflix, who has relied on network TV shows like Suits, Manifest, and You to boost its viewership numbers. Netflix has been trying to build up its own library of bingeworthy content. But its most-watched series, like The Crown or Stranger Things, cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and could never produce nearly enough episodes to fulfill viewers' insatiable appetite. While newer (and slightly cheaper) Netflix originals like The Night Agent or The Diplomat have aspirations to become the mid-tier dramas that people will binge for weeks on end, the streamer simply doesn't have a robust enough library to keep up with demand.
As long as there are lulls in television programming, some old and seemingly unexpected series will find new life on these streamers. Eventually TV creators may learn the lesson. We don't want dumb shows and smart shows. We want shows that are just smart enough.
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Write to Eliana Dockterman at email@example.com