Pop Culture

USA Network’s Three-Part Com-Dram Formula for Hits

Written by: Michael Shulman
As much as I’m a fan of hard-core dramatic television (nothing gets between me and my Law & Order), I’ve really become partial to shows that you watch and just know the cast is having a terrific time behind the scenes.

So, when I’m in pursuit of pure escapism, nothing does it for me like a well-executed dramatic comedy (aka “dramedy”) that combines a little bit of wackiness, a soupcon of comic relief and equal parts good timing, good casting and good writing.

Some things that set the comedy-drama apart from the sitcom are as follows: (1) no pre-recorded laugh track, (2) tend to be one-hour in length, (3) dependence on back-stories and character histories, and (4) of a more serialized nature. Some of the better examples from recent television include Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Doctor Who, Gilmore Girls, Monk, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure, SportsNight and Wonderfalls; while a few notables on the air today include such popular fare as Bones, Castle and House M.D.

Returning to the USA Network for the Winter/Spring 2010 season is a trio of original series that utilize this comedy-drama formula: White Collar, Burn Notice and Psych.

White Collar (tagline: “To solve the toughest crimes, hire the smartest criminal.”) debuted in 2009 and follows Neil Caffrey, the world’s slickest white-collar criminal (con artist, forger, cat burglar, jewel thief, etc.) who talks the FBI agent who arrested him into letting him out of prison in a sort of work-release situation. Now Caffrey is helping the FBI put folks like him away, while he vigilantly searches for his missing girlfriend Kate. It’s fun, it’s fast-paced, and it features dynamite casting.

Burn Notice (tagline: “Spies don’t get fired, they get burned.”) debuted in 2007 and is the story of a former CIA operative who has received the titular “burn notice,” making him persona non grata with his previous employer. While on his quest to regain his active status, and find out who burned him, he takes on odd jobs around Miami (remember The Equalizer?) for those who are being swindled, oppressed or in need. Colorful and lush, with a great cast and chemistry to spare, Burn Notice is a dynamite spy series with lots of explosive action. Besides, what’s hotter than a gorgeous woman in a designer mini-dress holding a pump-action shotgun? Yowza!

Psych (tagline: “Fake Psychic. Real Detectives.”) debuted in 2006 with the incomparable Monk as its lead-in. While utterly absurd in premise, the show’s silliness is its most endearing trait. The mile-a-minute quips are reminiscent of Fletch, and the '80s pop-culture references are plenty (from professional wrestling to the Easy Bake Oven, to their ads for the new season in which the five lead characters perform “Private Eyes” by Hall & Oates). Psych was nominated in 2009 for the Emmy Award for “Best Comedy Series.” Also, there’s a contest for viewers to find the hidden pineapple in each episode. Talk about original.

In this day and age, with so much angst and discord, it’s nice to turn on the television and escape the negativity. After all, isn’t that what entertainment is all about?

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