It was a rather striking moment when Rami Malek won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series at this year’s Emmys—not because Malek isn’t great in his role as Elliot Alderson on USA’s Mr. Robot, but because the moment involved the words “USA’s Mr. Robot.” Part of the surprise stems from the Emmys rewarding a weird, idiosyncratic show like Mr. Robot. Here’s a show about a mentally ill young hacker on a quest to overthrow the powers that be. Sure, Christian Slater is on the show, but it’s not the ’90s anymore. It would have been thoroughly unsurprising if Emmy voters had found the show too outré for their more traditional tastes. But for the deranged among us who spend time thinking about the evolution of the TV landscape, the fact that a show from the USA Network won a major Emmy award was just as shocking as a show like Mr. Robot winning. More than that, the very idea of a show like Mr Robot airing on USA still feels a little strange to those of us who remember, and mourn, the network’s “blue sky” era.
Before Malek’s Emmy win, the most impactful cultural moment involving a USA program was probably the Saturday Night Live sketch “What is Burn Notice?” The joke of the sketch, and like many Saturday Night Live sketches there was really only one joke, was that people had a vague understanding that Burn Notice was a thing that existed, but couldn’t quite place what it was. This was a step up from where the network was in the ’90s, when it was home to series such as Pacific Blue and a TV version of Weird Science, but USA still lacked cultural cachet. What it didn’t lack was a fan base that was drawn to its specific brand of programming.
If you wanted light drama, or the occasional hour-long comedy, USA was the place for you. This was part of the “blue sky” ethos that permeated its original programs. Another part of it was pretty literal. USA’s shows were bright and sunny. They took place in lush, lovely locales. They were designed to be fun and to transport viewers. Yes, a few of the network’s shows were procedurals that involved murders, but even those never really got dark. There were plenty of places to get dark dramas, and dark comedies, on television. USA was the network that tried to make true the titular claim of a-ha’s “The Sun Always Shines on TV.”
The network first dipped its toe into these waters with Monk—a crime procedural with a twist that made it the ostensible Patient Zero for the “blue sky” era. Tony Shalhoub played a persnickety, obsessive-compulsive detective named Adrian Monk. As he went about the business of solving crimes, his phobias and hang-ups got him into situations that cut through the tension. The series was lighter than most of its procedural competitors, such as CSI and Criminal Minds. (Shalhoub received eight Emmy nominations for Monk, including three wins, in the less “prestigious” comedy category.)
The “blue sky” era really kicked it into high gear in 2007, when the aforementioned Burn Notice debuted. Jeffrey Donovan starred as Michael Westen, a former spy who put together something of a modern A-Team in Miami, Florida. There were jokes and big explosions and, yes, a lot of sunshine. Along with the likes of White Collar—in which a con man (Matt Bomer) helps an FBI agent (Tim DeKay) bring down white-collar criminals—Covert Affairs—with Piper Perabo as a CIA agent—and Royal Pains—about a doctor for rich people in the Hamptons—Burn Notice exemplified the breezy “blue sky” style, but none of the network’s offerings quite matched Psych, the crown jewel in USA’s azure tiara.
Psych was a rare bird in contemporary television: an hour-long comedy. The premise was that Shawn Spencer (James Roday) was a fake psychic who would use his keen powers of observation to help the police solve crimes. His best friend, Gus (Dulé Hill), would tag along, often begrudgingly, and hilarity would ensue. But as the series went on, it became preoccupied with genre parody—an hour-long version of Community, without Dan Harmon’s self-loathing baked in. The late-arriving Hangover parody “Last Night Gus,” for instance, managed to be both funnier and less hateful than the original films ever were, featuring Shawn, Gus, humorously gruff police detective Carlton Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) and goofy coroner Woody (Kurt Fuller) waking up in a tough spot without any memory of the night prior.
Alas, the ability to make people smile is not necessarily valuable currency in the current cable landscape. Psych ended its run in March of 2014, and with it an endangered species became extinct. This is not to say that Psych’s end was untimely. It ran for more than 100 episodes, and cracks in its façade were beginning to show, in terms of storytelling and humor. No, the unfortunate thing is what the end of Psych represented. USA was on its way to getting into the “prestige” drama game.
After a brief flirtation with sitcoms, Mr. Robot dropped into USA’s lap. This is as true as it is glib. Sam Esmail was working on a movie that he realized worked better as a TV show, and USA took the gamble. Immediately, the perception of USA began to change. Mr. Robot could only be more devoid of blue skies if it was that planet from Pitch Black. It’s dark, at times comically so: The protagonist, Malek’s Elliot Alderson, deals with drug abuse, memory lapses and lifelike hallucinations, and the series’ universe is one marked by violence and sexual depravity. (It is, after all, a show about a group of people essentially trying to destroy the world economy.) The gamble seems to have paid off: Mr. Robot has been the subject of more critical acclaim, and coverage, than any of the network’s “blue sky” series ever did. Now, USA airs programs such as Falling Water, an Inception-style drama about three strangers sharing the same dream, and Queen of the South, starring Alice Braga as a young woman who rises to the top of a drug cartel. Even the last remaining “blue sky” show, Suits, seems decidedly more serious now, including putting one of its main characters in jail for a little while. It’s the rare leopard that changed its spots.
In chasing the zeitgeist, though, USA maybe setting itself up for disappointment. It’s now in the same game as AMC and HBO, which have much longer track records of success in terms of dramatic programming. While Mr. Robot won an Emmy as a fresh-faced series (Malek’s Best Actor prize was for the pilot episode), Season Two finds Esmail indulging his own interests, for better or (cough, cough) for worse. You can’t blame USA, necessarily. Mr. Robot breathed life into the network. But it may also be an isolated incident.
None of USA’s other quasi-prestige dramas have found much success to this point. The novelty of Mr. Robot is already starting to wear off. (It also has a shelf life, as Esmail’s announced that he has an end game in mind, one that would conclude the series after five or six seasons.) Then what? At the moment, it looks like USA has traded its niche for little more than being able to belly up to the cable network bar and say, “Hey, remember Mr. Robot? Wasn’t that something?”
With USA’s decision to swing for a home run, instead of settling for the “blue sky” era’s series of solid doubles, fans of light dramas have lost their home network: There’s nothing like Psych on TV, and there’s not much like Burn Notice, either. That’s a shame. Maybe Roday was never going to get to take the Emmys stage like Malek, but USA’s “blue sky” era will be missed nonetheless. In a few years, when Mr. Robot is no longer an ongoing concern, or at least no longer a critical darling, USA may be missing it as well.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.