The AMC Network existed for over 20 years until Mad Men came along, forever transforming that network from one associated with classic movies (and spectacularly mean reality shows) to one that airs two of the most violent, most popular shows on television in Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. After eight years as a network mostly associated with reruns, FX premiered The Shield in 2002, which shaped that network into one of the leaders in cable dramas. Oz and then Sex and the City and The Sopranos transformed HBO from a network mostly associated with airing recently released movies into the leading premium network for original programming. House of Cards, likewise, completely changed Netflix from a streaming service that provided access to television shows from other networks into a powerhouse for original content.
In a few years, people will look back at Mr. Robot and see that it also changed the face of the USA Network, once the home of breezy procedural dramas like Psych, Monk, Suits and Royal Pains. The network, however, is quickly moving away from those reliable hits and focusing its efforts on programming that sticks, hard-edged dramas that are far closer to appointment viewing than Burn Notice, a spy drama that ran for seven seasons and barely advanced the plot.
It’s a huge risk for the network coming off of 10-consecutive years as the top-rated ad-supported cable network in total viewers, because Mr. Robot falls well short of the ratings for the perennial powerhouse Suits. However, in the era of Peak TV, mediocrity won’t cut it anymore (and ratings for Suits are half of what they used to be). The USA Network has recognized that if it’s going to survive, it’s going to have to compete with HBO, AMC, and FX and create edgy dramas that will be talked about in social media and covered on the internet. The USA Network understands that the “network” isn’t as important as the “programming,” because great shows will be watched on a variety of platforms.
The modest success of Mr. Robot has been the first step. That series paved the way for Colony, which was something of a misfire with both critics and audiences, but it continued to steer the network away from disposable dramas. Last month, the network even changed its slogan from “Characters Welcome” to “We the Bold,” featuring the title character from Mr. Robot.
Duplicating the buzzy success of Mr. Robot won’t be easy, however. Look at HBO, which hasn’t had a legitimate breakout drama hit since Game of Thrones. AMC has resorted to spin-offs Fear the Walking Dead and Better Call Saul (although, Preacher looks to be a giant hit), while FX succeeds with critically acclaimed dramas like Fargo and The Americans despite anemic ratings.
It’s going to be an awkward transition for the USA Network, as the cabler’s next two outings demonstrate. The first, Falling Water, is an Inception-like drama from Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later), which looks like an “edgy” drama from the network that brought us White Collar.
Shooter, likewise, is a television series based on a Bourne knock-off starring Mark Wahlberg adapted to the screen starring the Wahlberg knock-off Ryan Phillippe. Shooter was a modestly entertaining thriller, and the trailer suggests a modestly entertaining television series, but not one that is going to generate the kind of buzz created by Mr. Robot.
Shooter, which is on-brand for the old iteration of the USA Network, will almost certainly be a hit for the channel, the kind of drama that can pay for the next Mr. Robot, which may well come from Robot creator Sam Esmail himself, who signed a deal with USA Networks’ parent company on the day Mr. Robot premiered to develop new series for the network. USA is putting a lot of eggs in that one basket, but if season two of Mr. Robot — which already inserted an easter egg into its first trailer — can build on the success of the first season, it may well pay off in a better, bolder network.