Yesterday I tweeted “Mad Men + White Collar = Suits” referring to the new show on USA, Suits, but I think my equation was a little off. My first impression upon watching the pilot was that Suits wasn’t much more than a White Collar clone. The two shows share the same network, and given the success of White Collar it wouldn’t be surprsing for the ntweork to try something the same but different. The shows are highly similar: both are procedurals that revolve around a masculine duo of mismatched characters engaging with the law. Suits’ theme appeared to have ditched the White Collar’s goofy dad character Peter Burke (played so well by Tim DeKay), instead opting to split the White Collar’s Neal Caffery (Matt Bomer) character into two different characters. One, Harvey Spectre (Gabriel Macht) an intensely handsome and impeccably dressed uber-lawyer, and the other Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) a near-do-well with a photographic memory.
I was worried that splitting Caffery in two wouldn’t give the show much to go on. In White Collar, Caffery is a fully-fledged character that Matt Bomer brings to life as the conman you fall in love with, but never quite trust. But as the cast of Suits fleshed out in the second episode and we begin to see the patterns established I realized that I was looking at the show from the entirely wrong perspective. Underneath the hood Suits isn’t anything like White Collar, it’s actually a lot more like Scrubs. The scenario of the show is that it follows a young lawyer learning how to make it in the intense world of high finance law. The shows protagonist, Mike Ross, wrestles with his taciturn self-involved boss, Harvey Specter, whose impossibly high expectations and moment to moment vacillation about the whether he wants to be a mentor as well as a boss make life at the firm a daily struggle, and their relationship clearly mirrors the JD-Cox relationship from Scrubs.
As the cast is fleshed out we see more similarities. Rachel Zane (Meghan Markle), the thick-skinned, highly capable paralegal who shows Ross the ropes maps easily onto Carla, and the Machiavellian Lewis Litt (Rick Hoffman), Specter’s nemesis and Ross’s other boss whose schadenfreude-fueled behavior is fondly reminiscent of Scrubs’ Bob Kelso. It’s not a perfect match, but the core of the shows scenarios line up pretty well. Like pantheons of ancient mythologies we’re not hoping for a perfect match, since a perfect match wouldn’t be much fun, but rather a strong correlation between the two. Further, we can use the differences in the shows to examine what makes each one successful in its own right, in the ways that it deviates from its imperfect reflection.
Suits shifts the emphasis from the buddy-buddy relationship of Scrubs to the protege-mentor relationship between Ross and Specter. There’s still room for another strong male relationship in Ross’s life, perhaps to be developed later in the show during a detente between Ross and his estranged best friend, a drug dealer who nearly got Ross locked up in a drug deal gone bad. But the show doesn’t suffer from the shift away from friends and towards mentor-protege, and although lives aren’t at stake in Suits the way they are in Scrubs the stakes remain high.
The strongest difference between Scrubs to Suits is in the Kelso/Litt character. On Scrubs Ken Jenkin’s Bob Kelso was a curmudgeonly tyrant who took joy in torturing the doctors under his command (and especially his lawyer Ted Buckland played by the endearingly hapless Sam Lloyd). In Suits Lewis Litt doesn’t have Kelso carte blanche, and as such adds a creepily seductive quality to his arsenal of manipulation. Kelso was rarely subtle and often brutal in his approach to getting what he wanted, where Litt allows his victims enough rope to hang themselves. Where Kelso bellowed and berated, Litt insinuates and implies. It’s a strange but powerful twist to the character, and I look forward to seeing how Hoffman develops him, since he’s quickly become my favorite of the cast, a down and dirty schemer who’s not afraid to get the job done, and is unapologetic about both his ambitions and his methods.
My only complaint thus far about Suits is how little Gina Torres has been used. She splits the Kelso role with Hoffman, since she’s the Big Boss, but lacks Litt’s oily mischievousness. She is ultimately a beneficent character, but not one who will lose sight of her top priority: the Firm. My hope is that her character will play more of a role as the season(s) develop, since letting an actor with that much talent languish underutilized on such a good show would be a crime.
Certainly Scrubs is not the only influence on Suits. There are strong veins of Madmen in its tempo and temperament (intense conversations between between well coiffed smarty dressed men on the nature of trust in relationships), as well as quite a bit of Entourage’s male wish-fulfillment, though in Suits’ case from the bottom up rather than the top down. If the end of the second episode, where Mike Ross gives his boss Louis Litt the comeuppance he’s been begging for all episode, is any indication, then it’s no doubt that the show will be filled with small but golden moments of the talented little guy overcoming the malicious big guy.
Given its influences, its cast, its network and its success to-date, I’m hard pressed to see Suits not doing well this season and next. It’s hard to screw up a procedural, then again that didn’t stop White Collar from taking major missteps in season 2 that completely turned me off. Its saving grace was the incredibly charismatic cast and its consistently snappy dialogue . Suits has started much less ambitiously than White Collar did, and I think its slower start will serve it will in creating a problem free, long-range arc, with many an enjoyable episode between here and there.