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Blue Skies’ Last Stand

In a changing TV landscape, ‘Suits’ is a welcome dose of luxurious legal intrigue

Kristian Hammerstad
Kristian Hammerstad

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

You know someone who faithfully watches Suits. USA’s legal drama just wrapped up the first half of its sixth season last week. This person has been loyal to the firm for a few seasons now, even if she had to binge-watch a season or two after they aired. She’s tried to sell you on it for years: Seriously, it’s a good show! She probably has a specific allegiance to either Harvey Specter — the brash, arrogant, movie-quoting, Tom Ford–wearing lawyer — or Mike Ross — the orphaned, reckless, movie-quoting, Burberry-wearing lawyer-impersonator. She probably admires secretary Donna Paulsen’s winsomeness and lusts after managing partner Jessica Pearson’s exquisite dresses and glamorous coats. It doesn’t hurt that Sarah Rafferty (Donna) reps for redheads as well as Lucille Ball and 2004 Lindsay Lohan, and Gina Torres (Jessica) is as tall as a runway model and as elegant as Michelle Obama. This person is me (I’ve been watching since Day 1), but I’m confident I’m not alone in my Suits convictions. If you watch a handful of episodes from any season, you’ll quickly find its pleasures are obvious and easy to digest. Suits isn’t prestige, but it is luxury television.

The show premiered in late June 2011. There was an opening that summer for a series about well-groomed professionals prancing around an airy New York office, because Mad Men had taken the year off. Aaron Korsh, the creator and showrunner, didn’t pitch it as a non-prestige, contemporary version of the AMC drama, but he could have. Here’s the conceit: Specter is a brooding and exceptionally talented white-collar guy who wears impeccable suits and often disregards the wisdom and commands of his superiors. Also, he keeps whiskey in his office. Specter discovers a wunderkind, Ross, and instantly hires the savant to do a job for which he is not qualified. One of these principles has a secret that, should it be revealed, would shatter the fictional world as we know it. That secret will come out, and yet the show will soldier on. There’s the aforementioned redheaded secretary who is absolutely vital. There are several renamings of the company. Unlike Mad Men, Suits has never tried to account for current events, and the magic of Roger Sterling is inimitable, but the broad strokes are intact. Swap in the law for advertising, and you have Suits.

Korsh’s original concept was as far from Mad Men as two non-reality cable shows can be. He initially imagined the pilot as a 30-minute comedy akin to Entourage, except it was about a fraudulent math genius working on Wall Street. The creator explained to The Hollywood Reporter in 2011 that he and his agent “went in and pitched to USA how we would take these same characters and put them into the world of law,” and so we ended up with the very basic cable law firm version of one of the most complex shows in TV history. In another THR interview regarding Season 6, which just wrapped up its first-half run, Korsh even invoked Mad Men to explain some of his choices in the most recent season: “I don’t think we’re in its league and I was a huge fan, but if we compare ourselves to Mad Men, those people moved on to different places and we followed them in different places … We can pretend to do that.” Suits is what prestige TV looks like when it’s given the blue skies treatment. Precise premise is secondary to familiar characters and aesthetics.

Suits joined USA’s slate well into its blue skies era. Burn Notice, Royal Pains, Covert Affairs, and (one of my personal favorites) White Collar were already cable hits, all of them peddling a very specific ethos, set in various East Coast locales, from the Hamptons to Washington, D.C., to Miami. At the time of Suits’s debut, Bonnie Hammer, who was chairman of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment and Cable Studios, explained to The Wall Street Journal that the network was only interested in shows that were “aspirational, blue skies, upbeat, optimistic, and character-driven.”

This was a highly literal description of her shows, but also quite correct. The network’s two crime shows, White Collar and Burn Notice, were both rooted in the genteel art world. White Collar’s hero, Neal Caffrey, was the happiest convict to ever wear an ankle tracker, bopping all over the five boroughs pursuing criminals as if he were on the Real Housewives of New York City’s event circuit. The doctor show, Royal Pains, was about a guy who makes house calls, only for the extremely wealthy denizens in a version of the Hamptons where Montauk Highway traffic doesn’t exist. These shows presented universes that amplified clichés about rich people. They relied heavily on framing shots that captured the characters from below, so they were invariably framed by pricey real estate, or, in the case of Covert Affairs, beautiful vistas. The tagline for the blue skies era was “characters welcome,” but it could have been “rich-looking characters preferred.”

The corporate law firm was a natural fit for this slate of programming. The blue skies remained prominent, because an office atop a Manhattan skyscraper is naturally backdropped by a sunny horizon. To be faithful to the legal world, the characters had to telegraph wealth. Lush costumes became a calling card of the show and one way that Suits actually began to differentiate itself from its cohort. All you have to do is look at a photo gallery of Gina Torres’s looks from the six seasons to understand. The Royal Pains guy would look a royal mess next to my girl Jessica. The wardrobe designer, Jolie Andreatta, experimented with asymmetrical collars and mixing textures to consistently make Jessica look like she has all the money in the world and all the power in the room. (Her only TV equal is Diane Lockhart of The Good Wife.) The wardrobe on this show nearly became a character unto itself. Suits was initially green-lit and propelled by USA’s desire to expand its blue skies portfolio, but the aesthetics here ended up distinguishing it.

One hallmark of blue skies programming is the primacy of duos — not necessarily romantic. Leave the love triangles to the networks! The buddy premise is as old as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Suits is fortunate that the pair at its center is one with genuine chemistry. Patrick Adams and Gabriel Macht either must actually like each other very much or they are incredible actors, but let’s go with option no. 1. Mike and Harvey volley movie quotes at each other as if it’s some kind of competitive sport. This quirk infuses the show with some self-awareness, which is hard to pull off on any show, on any network, and distinctly not common on the USA Network.

Suits is now one of the last vestiges of blue skies TV. It’s cloudier at USA since Mr. Robot arrived last year. Mr. Robot is a gray-looking show without much lifestyle to aspire to, and it’s populated with dark and dismal interiors (a reflection of Elliot’s interior life). And for all of the sunny upward shots that dominated for several years, Sam Esmail and Co. rely on framing shots with diagonal lines to disrupt the scene. There’s no such thing as negative space in blue skies TV. Mr. Robot lives in it.

The furthest Suits ever strayed from the blue skies formula came in Season 3, Episode 6. Harvey and Jessica met on the roof for a tête-à-tête while James Blake’s “Retrograde” played in the background, years before The Leftovers used the song for its trailer. A significant meeting of lawyers occurring in the evening is not that rare for Suits (especially if you account for the many sexy meetings held in various apartments), but the locale is a wrinkle: on a roof — a.k.a. in the outdoors! Suits’s rebellions against blue skies are small, like a teenager asking for his parents’ attention by smoking weed in his bedroom.

U ntil the midseason finale last week, Suits’s core group of six characters had remained intact for 86 episodes. Harvey, Jessica, Louis, Donna, Rachel, and Mike were a unit. The unit sustained Suits. Now, Gina Torres has landed a different TV show (The Catch on ABC) that allows her to live in L.A. instead of commuting to Toronto, where Suits films, and so Jessica and her killer clothes are gone. She didn’t [spoiler alert] die, so she could come back, but Suits is entering a new era. “It’s almost like a transitional phase in the show, and it’s a transitional phase in the characters’ lives,” Korsh told Deadline recently. Suits will be back for six episodes beginning in January, and it’s possible that it’ll usher in the final chapter for the litigious crew. (This scheduling oddity is part of why Suits remains wonderful. You’re always less than six months from new episodes. Game of Thrones could learn something.)

There will be a Season 7 next summer, but how much longer will a show like this stay on a traditional network? Compared to the upheaval happening on other shows, Suits is almost a dinosaur. It offers no formal invention. The core cast appears in every episode. Guest stars come and go as discrete arcs wrap up. It’s not filmed on location. It features no former movie stars turning to TV for a second chance. And, because of all of this, Suits has its loyal, passionate fans. While Mr. Robot keeps its viewers wondering how the medium will be challenged next, Suits viewers are just wondering when Donna and Harvey will get together.

All Suits asks is that its viewers buy in. Mike spent the majority of the past 10 episodes in prison, with seemingly daily visits from Harvey. At one point, Harvey even broke him out for one night. The original premise required a suspension of disbelief, and now it would be hard for Suits to stretch the limits of logic much further. And yet, it doesn’t matter. Viewers like me keep coming back, for the characters, sure, but also for the comfort of knowing everything will work out. The sky will be blue, the ending will be happy. What’s wrong with that?