You almost never hear about Suits from critics, this one included. Why? The fact that the legal drama airs on USA Network is part of the reason. Critics don’t like to admit this, because it makes us seem as herdlike as civilian TV watchers, but sometimes we decide which shows to take seriously based on where they air. Track records mean a lot, and certain channels (HBO, AMC, FX, the post-Homeland Showtime) do have a reputation for arty boldness, so by habit we tend to relegate series that don’t air on those channels to the “check in occasionally, but don’t get too worked up” column. That’s where you’ll find the USA Network dramas Psych, White Collar, Burn Notice, and, yes, Suits, which is just beginning its third season and might be the most purely entertaining series on television.
In case you’ve never seen it, Suits is a show about beautiful people with beautiful clothes and immaculate hair strutting through sleek offices trading witty barbs, defending the firm’s clients while power playing their way into more advantageous positions within the show’s white-shoe New York firm, Pearson Hardman. Series creator Aaron Korsh and his writers and directors present these contests as feasts of eye and ear candy, as decadently pleasurable to watch as Starz’s gladiator potboilers. Between the roving camera, the copious use of reflections, and shot compositions that arrange key characters in power formations, the series often evokes Steven Soderbergh in Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven mode: iceberg cool.
But Suits is more than a pose. There are no dumb or weak characters, just smart sharks. “You afraid of the dark?” hotshot attorney Harvey Reginald Specter (Gabriel Macht) asks his right-hand man, Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), who never attended law school but is so good that he’s thrived at the firm anyway. “I wouldn’t be,” Mike deadpans, “if I had my Cookie Monster with me.”
Every scene and line in Suits shimmers with the coiled tension that comes when strong, smart people test each other. Loyal viewers know to eagerly anticipate certain recurring face-offs, because they never disappoint. I have a couple of favorites. One is Harvey versus Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman), the boss of the firm’s associates and a human mood ring who taught himself to appear confident and tough. (“We’re like two fingers of the same hand,” Louis told Harvey during a let’s-be-friends dinner last season. “As long as I’m the index,” Harvey replied.) The other dyad is composed of Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), the firm’s top boss, and Daniel Hardman (David Constabile, a.k.a. Gale the chemist from Breaking Bad), who co-founded Pearson Hardman with Jessica. Their slyly inflected stare-downs were as exciting as a Game of Thrones battle; now that Daniel is gone — ousted after a late-season-two power struggle that ended in a merger with a British firm — I will miss their tension terribly. Fortunately, there are new sharks in the tank. They’re English, and a couple of them were hired from Thrones: Michelle Fairley and Conleth Hill.
The show’s emphasis on fashion, grooming, vocabulary, and possessions isn’t superficial. It’s integral to the show’s worldview. All of these characters realize that to study a person’s surface is to intuit their depths. A memorable moment in season two found legal secretary Donna Paulsen (Sarah Rafferty) deducing that Louis was about to be made senior partner by remembering Louis’s promise from years ago to wear that suit if he ever achieved his dream promotion. Last week’s season premiere included a priceless scene in which Louis bitches that the firm’s new quartermaster has replaced the firm’s supply of Uniball pens (Louis’s favorite brand) with ballpoints. If you understand, as Louis does, that the Uniball purge is a symbolic assertion of power over Louis specifically, and by one half of the newly merged firm over the other, you realize this isn’t a trivial thing to get irked about. It’s a canary-in-a-coal-mine thing, the small death preceding the big one. On Suits, the victor in a struggle is often the one who pays the closest attention to detail over the longest span of time. Cases are often decided based on all-night research sessions, with lawyers and clerks sifting through boxes of documents until they find just the right incriminating fact. Miss a small but crucial tell and you end up in a smaller office, or on the street with a box in your hands.
I learn as much about the American drive toward riches and power from watching Suits as I do from watching dramas that are branded “art.” The show has many of the same core appeals as AMC’s critically scrutinized Mad Men, including the fixation on clothes, architecture, and social rituals. It’s just as fascinated by workplace scheming, gender relations, the use of money to indicate respect or fear. It shares certain plot elements as well, including an American-British business merger and many subplots about the perils of constructed identity (pretty much everyone at the firm is a Don Draper, sitting on a dark secret and praying it’s never exposed).
On top of all that, it’s directed by some of Mad Men creator Matt Weiner’s favorite filmmakers. Regular Mad Men helmer Jennifer Getzinger directed my favorite season-two episode, which included a brilliant sequence in which Donna returned to the firm the morning after Louis was named senior partner: The camera tracked them as they practically danced through the halls to the tune of “Disco Inferno,” bobbing along with Louis’s fancy footwork and the ticktock motion of Donna’s swaying skirt. If this show were on AMC instead of USA, it might have won a trophy case full of awards by now; in fact, it wouldn’t feel out of place if it aired in the time slot immediately following Mad Men.
To be fair, Suits’ dedication to giving pleasure might be a bigger factor in its critical neglect than the fact that it airs on USA. Critics and viewers alike tend to assume works that are mainly interested in laughs, excitement, and beauty are inherently less substantive than shows that rip the scabs off life and leave you feeling wrung out or disturbed. That assumption partly explains why so few comedies have won Academy Awards for Best Picture. It surely explains why Cary Grant, the most altogether enjoyable leading man in film history, never won an Oscar for his acting: He gave us pleasure no matter what the story and situation, and he made it look easy. Suits may never win a Best Drama Emmy, but it may one day be remembered as a great show that never got its due because it didn’t carry an “I’m Great” sign. It’s the Cary Grant of cable dramas.