A close reading of cable’s top-rated network.

Anika Noni Rose as Lavender Caraway in The Starter Wife

“We know drama,” boasts the slogan of the cable channel TNT, and no couch potato would dare dispute it. On TNT, late-model shows about medicine, the law, the order, spycraft, and hot witches purr steadily in syndication, while originals like The Closer (with Kyra Sedgwick as a police detective) and the forthcoming Saving Grace (with Holly Hunter as a police detective) offer up the promise that grown-up men and women can achieve catharsis in an economical hour. Meanwhile, its sister channel TBS assures us that its programming is “very funny.” In practice, this means that fans of Ocean’s 11 and Sister Act 2 alike will be served; that TBS won’t let Sex and the City go gently to that Meat-Packing District in the sky; that a stream of classic sitcoms will be interrupted only by semi-experimental new ones, Atlanta Braves baseball, and, for whatever reason, Dawson’s Creek.

And then we have the third and biggest of the cable networks trying, not quite paradoxically, to carve out a mass-market niche. The USA Network is the top-rated basic-cable channel in primetime and supposedly NBC Universal’s most lucrative asset. It’s kind of, like, hot. It’s reclaimed WWE from Spike, and its numbers are up with young men. Two weeks ago, NBC Universal announced that the seventh season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent will enjoy its premiere run on USA, with “second window” airing on free TV. The Starter Wife, based on the third novel by the third wife of big, fancy Brian Grazer, will debut with a splash on Thursday.


Those looking for answers to the obvious question here—how did a channel formerly best known for lite cheesecake, judicial shows, and the discount noir of Silk Stalkings rise to the top of the heap?—might do well to look at a show that moved from NBC to USA 20 years ago: the remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Unapologetic in its stagy pursuit of low thrills and middlebrow pop-artiness, AHP seems to have defined the network. TNT is drama; TBS is comedy; USA is suspense with a sense of humor and a knack for stylistic gaudiness that Edith Head might appreciate. The beachside-set Pacific Blue, a USA staple in the late ‘90s, was Baywatch with shadows and the power of arrest, and Silk Stalkings, which aired from 1991 to 1999, lingered, obviously, on loopy murder plots and straight seams. These days, USA remains interested in crime and trangression—but not in the expressionistic, flagrantly “edgy,” vaguely Julian Schnabel manner of FX (the home of Nip/Tuck, The Shield, and the overwrought Riches). Rather, its big hit is Monk—a genre-bender starring Tony Shalhoub as a detective with an endearing case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Careful not to be too dark, USA is still a high-Freudian fiesta with a thing for crime. Credit is due to Bonnie Hammer, head honcho at USA since 2004, for looking into the network’s mildly troubled soul, teasing out its inner brand, and coining its current tagline: “Characters Make Us #1.” (In Hitchcock, even Paul Newman can look like a quirky type, while the likes of Claude Rains and Otto Kruger chew up their roles with great savor.) As Hammer once told the L.A. Daily News: “We do have to have strong, definable, differentiated characters. … Our protagonists are all slightly flawed in some way, but not negatively, not dysfunctionally.” Let’s put it this way: USA is the only conceivable place to air a screen adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem’s novel about an orphaned gumshoe with Tourette’s.

USA is campy and sincere at once. Although it broadcasts some golf and tennis, its signature sporting event is the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, which must attract viewers with a wide variety of ironic dispositions, from big fans of Best in Show to passionate Chihuahua aficionados. For this very reason, The Starter Wife is a natural fit. The show is total trash—just the ticket if Desperate Housewives is rather too dry for your tastes—but it’s good-natured, formally ambitious trash, full of long-playing scenes and guided by a hostility to narrative logic that must be intentional.

The winningly gawky Debra Messing, late of Will & Grace, stars as a woman who’s recently split from a Hollywood big shot. If I followed the show correctly—and I must concede that I wasn’t trying all that hard—she falls in love with a homeless ex-investment banker who looks a little like Aaron Eckhart. Judy Davis—engaged in vivacious self-parody, with the veins in the voice and the strain in the neck—is her alcoholic buddy. The producers have styled Davis to look like a cross between Annette Bening and a moldy cucumber. Messing and Davis do a lot of dressing up and role playing, some of it in daydream sequences, as when they re-enact the she’s-my-daughter slap shtick from Chinatown.

On The Starter Wife, fantasies and pop parables are always overlapping to create odd layers of meaning, or at least the appearance thereof—another trait that marks it as classic USA product. The network’s best show ever—La Femme Nikita, Joel Surnow’s adaptation of Luc Besson’s spy thriller, which aired from 1997 to 2001—holds up as both a meaningful allegory and meaningless fluff. As critic Tom Carson has written, Nikita is an empowerment fantasy, a parable of the workplace, a Harlequin romance, an action show with hella cool gadgets:“It’s the sort of show that takes a shortcut to suggestiveness by the simple device of making everyone in sight oblique and enigmatic.” Never talking down, USA invites you to bring your own sophistication, or not. I kind of fell for The Starter Wife scene in which the heroine visits her lover at his pallet and sees a copy of The Human Stain atop his tower of bedside reading. They both love the Zuckerman novels! “Do you want to borrow The Anatomy Lesson?” he asks.

There are at least three levels here: The generic reference to High Culture; the psychosexual, metatextual generic marker (The Anatomy Lesson is the one where Nathan’s favorite position is on the play mat with a thesaurus under his head); the just-inside-enough evocation of the noted wisdom of the William Morris Agency: In Hollywood, “Philip Roth trumps Joe Roth.” On USA, the character actor Tim Roth—with his overwrought tics and pulp-fiction flexibility—trumps them both.