CarterMatt Extended: How ‘Suits’ quietly (and methodically) became one of television’s best shows

CM Extended -The year was 2011, and for USA Network, this was one of their most lucrative eras. They had a fan favorite in “Psych” that reveled in its own goofiness, “Burn Notice” was going strong, and then you look at the roster of other shows populating its airwaves: namely, “Royal Pains,” “White Collar” and “Covert Affairs.” They had found themselves catapulting to the forefront of cable relevance years before with “Monk,” a quirky old-school whodunnit that became the focal point for their “Characters Welcome” brand. Since that time, they were firmly calling the winner’s bracket home.

In television, it is easy to tell the same story twice. That is why you have shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI” persevere for decades. There is a chicken-soup sort of quality to coming home, tired and stressed, to find something that you turn on while simultaneously turning off your brain. Such notions as character investment and developing some emotional resonance with your audience were deemed secondary to just packing a beginning, a middle, and an end into an hour.

USA first found a way through “Monk” to mold the best of both worlds. They crafted what was an old-school procedural with kooky cases and often-predictable endgames, but they surrounded them with fun characters, whether it be the neurotic Adrian Monk or the off-clueless Randy. Broadcast television was allowing the top to stay firmly planted on its side; USA picked up the top and took it for a slight spin. This is why so many episodes of “Monk” still hold up in a way that other crime series do not; you are watching to follow along the journey of the character just as much as seeing who did it and why. That’s why some episodes even started with the reveal of the killer, or other twists that rendered the procedural aspect of the hour.

With “Psych,” USA found a way to take the quirkiness of its flagship show and add a goofy coat of paint and a younger target demo. For “Burn Notice,” they combined MacGyver with James Bond. With “White Collar,” they proved that you can make an “Ocean’s Eleven” TV series with a smaller league of thieves and the same amount of entertainment.

This brings us back to 2011, and the genre that USA had yet to fully conquer: The legal show. How do take the rough, leathery skin of this genre and make it appealing? “Boston Legal” was the last show to effectively execute such an act with aplomb, and it was over two years dead and buried at the time when “Suits” first started to become an idea beyond just the studio and the network offices. On paper, law firms are the real “characters not welcome”; they can be dry, imposing, and devoid of humor. To the general public, lawyers are inherently unlikable. Unless your lead is a district attorney trying to fight for the little guy, or the innocent behind bars with no other hope, flicking the channel is a much easier practice than getting invested in someone you automatically prejudge as a jerk.

Ironically, it was this idea that was on the aforementioned paper that helped paved the way for “Suits” to become a hit, a game-changer for the network, and what has quietly become one of television’s greatest series.

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What “Suits” did right

Let’s begin by giving you the bare-bones premise of Aaron Korsh’s pilot: One of the best case-closers in the business in Harvey Specter, fresh off of getting the promotion he has long dreamed of, ends up hiring an associate in Mike Ross. The twist? That Harvard Law education Mike has is up in smoke.

Superficially, neither of these characters sound likable. Harvey is notorious for getting the job done at times without consequence, and for being more cutthroat than even other attorneys imagine. Meanwhile, Mike just so happens to be a brilliant guy wasting his intellect with unethical behavior to get the money he needs for him and his grandmother to survive. He’s like Walter White minus the killing people and being in the meth business. He’s in the survival business, but sadly not the business of actually applying himself.

There is still another component to the series that is reminiscent almost of a “Monk,” a “Psych,” a “White Collar,” or even a “Burn Notice.” Here you have this brilliant guy who just so happens to be adept at the precise skills needed to get the job done, yet lacks many needed qualifications to do so. The different comes in the quirk. Adrian was obsessive-compulsive, Shawn Spencer was a fake psychic consultant, Michael Western was forced to stay in Miami after being burned, and Mike is just a downright liar with a crazy-good memorable. Had he not been lying to the aforementioned inherently-unlikable lawyer-type, maybe his particular quirk may have failed. Instead he becomes almost a Robin Hood-like figure, taking down other attorneys and at times certainly people who deserve comeuppance.

USA created a law show in “Suits,” yet with Mike, found a way to spin the top and have viewers instantly invested in a unique, roguish character they hadn’t seen before. He defied the genre. There was more than the case of the week; there was the threat of Mike’s castle crumbling the moment the wrong person learned the truth. The show managed to stretch this “secret” story out for five seasons leading up to his recent arrest in the season 5A finale, and did so without turning it into a charade or an obvious gimmick. It all comes back to the charm and Patrick J. Adams’ performance; the goodness that you know lies within Mike continues to make him endearing, and helps you overcome any potential leaps in logic the show makes about whether or not someone in a law firm could really pull this off. Yet as every person finds out the truth about Mike, they’ve become so attached to his heroics that they cannot bear to be the one to definitively close the door on him … even though some have certainly tried.

In casting a wider lens, you are adding to the characters of Mike and Harvey Specter four other immensely popular characters: Louis Litt, Jessica Pearson, Rachel Zane, and Donna Paulsen. Only four. So many other cable and network shows shuffle in series regulars like a conga line, and “Suits” has kept their roster small but mighty through five seasons so far. Korsh, somewhere after creating a brilliant pilot and first season, recognized the importance in strength over numbers. We’d much prefer seeing six real, genuine, relatable characters than eight or nine, with one or two of them leaving every other season. You’ve spent the time for them to feel like members of your family. Jessica is the authoritative figure who you wish would lighten up, but you trust with your life in the end. Louis is the sibling you cannot help but love, even if he does things that drives you up the wall. Donna is the one who perpetually cares for others to the point you are jealous, and Rachel is the one who needs to be told from time to time that it is okay to balance ambition with something else.

All of these characters are tremendous, heartwarming, heart-wrenching, and in the end real. There are times they frustrate us, but we never stop rooting for them. The show has introduced other important people over the years (Scottie, Hardman, Katrina, and recently Dr. Agard) who are perfect compliments or combatants. You use them to supplement the people you already have, and then you move forward. There’s no time to look back on “Suits”; there’s always a big case.

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How to give lawyers life

The characters on “Suits” are liable to smash a few things, to knock papers off of a desk, or to swear in ways that many other USA shows do not. (The first time we heard a character utter “s**t” on the series, we were stunned as someone used to mostly hearing in on premium cable or late-night Comedy Central.) These people are not lifeless drones.

For “Suits,” it would be so easy for them to craft a case of the week in this simple structure:

1. Harvey receives a new case from Jessica, and enlists Mike’s help in figuring it out.

2. Louis is jealous he did not receive the case; Rachel feels like her skills are not being used.

3. Mike tries to put the pieces together himself, and realizes he cannot. Enter Rachel and Louis in a roundabout way.

4. Mike helps Harvey save the day. He and Jessica act mildly impressed.

Luckily, the show doesn’t do that, stretching cases over several episodes and creating different, unique story arcs.  The story of Jack Soloff could not be told over a single episode, and you could not see the endgame coming. If Mike followed the pattern, Jack probably would’ve taken over the firm with Hardman episodes early. Go back further and look at what Sean Cahill did, Hardman’s involvement in the earlier years of the show, or really anything that Forstman was up to.

At times, you can equate “Suits” to physicists solving a math problem. They know where they need to go, but lack the steps to get there. There’s both a mathematical and creative quality to figure out how to connect the dots, and it saves you from ever feeling like you know for sure where we are going … or from thinking that a case will be over after one episode when it so rarely is.

The complications of these cases keep the characters from ever settling in, and while there are the typical workplace romance storylines to further add dimension, they are still far from typical. At this point in the show’s run you still do not know if Harvey and Donna will get together; the writers have been forefront about their history, but not if a relationship with them will really work. It’s not so much a will-they-or-won’t-they as it is a can-they. Donna’s not relenting unless she gets what she deserves out of him, and if only so many other shows could craft female characters like this, what a better industry we’d have.

Oh, and the romance discussion is not complete without mention Mike and Rachel’s “engagement,” and one that might end because someone finally ratted Mike out right at the moment when he realized that he was putting Rachel through too much. Maybe a tad coincidental, but it goes back to the emotional investment. So much time was spent making us care that we cannot help it.

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What the future holds

For now, USA is continuing the “Suits” legacy until early 2017 (the end of season 6) at least, and they are at a very different time now in which they need it. They have the breakout show of the summer in “Mr. Robot,” but it is still in its infancy. “Royal Pains” is eight seasons in and a shell of its former self commercially, and they have formed more of a habit the past couple of years of canceling shows, something they were not keen to do in the “Monk” and “Psych” era.

Eventually, we know that Korsh will want to close the book on Mike Ross and his journey, and maybe it comes sooner rather than later. We do not get the sense where this show will or should last as long as the legal procedurals. It doesn’t need to. All it needs to do is make a case why spending so much time with these characters was worth it, and to a certain extent, it already has. There have been legitimate tears on this end, plenty of laughs, and above all else we feel challenged intellectually, but never belittled.

“Suits” has already cemented its reputation as the show that kept the USA top spinning through what is a transition era in their history. We just wish that it was a show that had more witnessing its feats other than those in the same crowd, those who realize that a network or a genre does not define a show, or that you can have a small cast you can sustain for five years, to the point where you wish some of them were real people despite their flaws.

We’re going to go off waiting at the door of Pearson, Specter, Litt. Hopefully, someone will let us inside come early 2016.

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CarterMatt Extended is a new feature, comprising of in-depth articles on various TV topics posted every Wednesday night.

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