Late this summer I walked in on my granddaughter Margaret watching the show Suits on TV. Well, she was also on her phone, but she was at least half-watching the TV show, which is about the most attention anything that’s not on the phone can hope to claim these days.
She was up to about the fourth season, which means she still had multiple seasons to follow the lives and loves of an intriguing bunch of Type-A attorneys, friends, frenemies, staff, nemeses, cohorts and rivals at a high-octane New York law firm.
I envied her with all that Suits ahead. I loved the show back when it was on the USA network from 2011 to 2019, and some of the best recent TV news is that plans are afoot to bring it back to life — although not, alas, with the original cast. It would be franchised, in effect, with a different group of lawyers someplace else, just as a CSI or Law & Order spins new shows from the mothership.
Over the last few years television networks in general have largely abandoned dramas built on strong characters with no special effects, superheroes, time travel, raucous sex jokes, sci-fi or ultraviolence.
There’s nothing wrong with shows that present those elements well. It’s just that their absence doesn’t make a show dull. The lawyers in Suits do not handle real estate closings. They play high-stakes legal chess matches on a level that’s sometimes cutthroat, but where the most that usually dies is someone’s career.
Earlier this century USA bet for several years that there was a viable niche on TV for this kind of show. Under the whimsical promo tagline “Characters Welcome,” USA produced a half dozen “Blue Skies” programs, also including White Collar, a dramedy about a charming con man who teams up with the agent that finally nailed him; Monk, about a detective with PTSD and OCD; Burn Notice, about a spy who has been cut loose and can trust nobody; Royal Pains, about a New York doctor exiled to the quirky world of medicine in the Hamptons; In Plain Sight, about a cop who helps people into WitSec; Psych, about two cops playing a myth about psychic powers; and Fairly Legal, about a lawyer who becomes a mediator.
The quality of the shows varied. But they were all pleasant ways to wind down at the end of the day. None of them gave you nightmares or required you to take an Ambien to get to sleep.
In some ways they felt like a throwback to the gentler programs of early television, updated with contemporary trappings. They didn’t swear. They did have cell phones.
In any case, the sun set on “Blue Skies.” As the shows gradually ran their course — Suits was the last survivor — USA replaced them with edgier sci-fi shows like Mr. Robot, then time-tested cop show reruns and professional wrestling.
It’s not that there was no audience for “Blue Skies.” The audience was just older than USA, like much of media everywhere, prefers to court.
As viewership of over-the-air, cable and satellite TV has shriveled in recent years, however, those older folks are the ones who have kept watching. That may be why a Monk movie is coming out next month and why Matt Bomer, one of the stars of White Collar, says there have been conversations about bringing that show back, picking up the original storyline.
The appeal of “Blue Skies” style shows has been reinforced the last couple of years by the popularity of, say, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — which, give or take its barrage of four-letter words, was a character show, driven by the dramas of people we got to like and wanted to follow. It even featured Tony Shalhoub from Monk.
If Mrs. Maisel wasn’t a unicorn, it did feel like an endangered species, which is one reason it was promising to see Margaret watching Suits. Margaret is exactly who advertisers, and therefore TV networks, want to pry away from social media influencers to more traditional product pitches.
Margaret’s favorite Suits character, a choice in which she does not stand alone, is Louis (Rick Hoffman), a brilliant lawyer who is hilariously inept at dealing with human beings. My own fave is probably Donna (Sarah Rafferty), the undervalued and underemployed assistant without whom star lawyer Harvey (Gabriel Macht) and maybe the entire firm might fall apart.
Harvey’s co-star Mike (Patrick J. Adams) isn’t bad, either. Harvey and Mike are both legally brilliant, almost as smart they think they are and often perched on precipices. Tense for them, good for viewers.
Like any show that runs 134 episodes, Suits took a few silly tangents and spun its wheels now and then. But it’s worth watching for more than just to see Meghan Markle before she became a duchess.
Netflix said Suits quickly became the network’s second most popular stream. Since Netflix releases no viewership numbers, it’s not clearly exactly what that means. At the very least it would seem to suggest there’s an audience that likes “Blue Skies” — and, memo to advertisers, some of that audience is Margaret.