Business Time

03.05.14

How the Dark and Stylish Drama ‘Suits’ Became USA’s Best Show

It’s one of the most pirated television shows that you probably don’t watch. As USA darkens its palette of dramas, ‘Suits’ is poised to take over as the network’s flagship series.

Vince, Turtle and Johnny Drama as…investment bankers? That was Aaron Korsh’s initial idea when he sat down to write the show that would eventually become Suits. As he struggled during the 2007-2008 writers strike to get out of a professional rut, “My agent said, ‘You're always telling me these Wall Street stories, why don't you write about that?’” recalls Korsh, who had graduated from Wharton and worked as a Manhattan investment banker in the late ’80s/early ’90s before turning to writing. “So I set out to write a half-hour, Entourage-type show about investment banking.”

Instead, he ended up with something “much weightier,” which has since become one of USA network’s most popular shows. Suits tells the story of brilliant-but-troubled Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), who has a photographic memory and was once Harvard Law School-bound, but was instead expelled from college for selling the answers to a math test. In the pilot, Mike crosses paths with Harvey Spector (Gabriel Macht), a headstrong senior partner at Pearson Hardman tasked with hiring an associate from Harvard Law. Instead, Harvey offers the position to Mike, despite the fact that he does not have a law—or even a college—degree.

Since its 2011 debut, Suits has been steadily building momentum and critical praise. Last summer, the first 10 episodes of Season 3 drew 5.36 million viewers, also becoming USA’s highest-rated series of 2013 in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo. The show, which like many USA series splits its season in two parts (more than half of the episodes air during the summer; the rest follow in the winter), returns for a six-episode run beginning Thursday, March 9, at 9 p.m. ET. And with White Collar’s future in limbo, Suits is poised to take over as USA’s flagship series.

Despite the change in locale, Suits still very much reflects Korsh’s undergrad years at Wharton, where “I smoked a lot of pot,” he recalls. “I had a very good memory and I was able to do very well without going to class and messing around. I graduated and became an investment banker, but I always felt a little bit like a fraud because I had never really put in the work.” When one of his college roommates died when Korsh was 25, he had an epiphany and left banking to become a writer, working on shows like Everybody Loves Raymond and Just Shoot Me.

As Korsh wrote Suits (which he initially called A Gifted Mind), “the idea was to transfer my feelings of feeling like a fraud, and let’s make an actual fraud.” Because the original pilot was about investment bankers, “the level of his fraudulence was not as great,” says Korsh. “Had he been found out it wouldn’t have been illegal, it just would have been damaging at the firm.” His agent took the script to USA, which was intrigued but needed the series to have a case-of-the-week spine, which wasn’t compatible with the business of Wall Street. “So we made them lawyers,” says Korsh.

And in doing so, he created a scenario far more dire, and illegal, than he had initially intended. Because Mike is not actually a lawyer, his deception sets him up (along with Harvey and managing partner Jessica Person, played by Gina Torres) for potential jail time if it is ever uncovered. USA, however, never batted an eye about the prospect of a show in which its two heroes could end up in jail at any moment. “In the same way I kept waiting for people to tell me to take the ‘shit’s out [of the script], I kept waiting for someone to say we can't make this show; it's not plausible that he's a fake lawyer,”  Korsh recalls. “Then I started thinking about the [Bernie] Madoff thing. Also, if you Google fake lawyers, all the time people are like faking, like the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can. For years, people really do get away with these things, so that made me feel better.”

‘What would Madoff's story be if he had spent his whole life doing what he was doing, but helping people?’

The opportunity to play a “good” version of Madoff in Mike was a big draw for Patrick J. Adams. “It’s something that I always talk to Aaron about,” Adams says. “What would Madoff's story be if he had spent his whole life doing what he was doing, but helping people? What would happen if a lawyer got to the end of his career of mostly doing good for people, and your secret got revealed?  How would the world judge you then?”

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When Suits debuted in 2011, its initial numbers were solid but not spectacular. While Korsh noted that the fan base already had “an intensity and fervor” on sites like Tumblr, some USA viewers were turned off by a show that skewed much darker than the traditional “blue skies” series that had been the network’s bread and butter. Yet despite its sharper edges, the show was marketed as in the same cheery vein as other USA series like Burn Notice and Royal Pains. “That always frustrated us,” says Adams. “You’d see certain promotional elements of the show and you be like, ‘That doesn't feel like what we're doing.’ But as the actor I really try to remove myself from that and focus on the task at hand.”

While USA has continued darkening its palette with new shows like Graceland, Suits has struggled to attract the network’s core viewers. “It feels like some of the audience for some of the other shows don't spark to Suits as much, but we bring in a new audience,” says Korsh. “I think we skew a little younger than some of the other shows.”

Gabriel Macht agrees that Suits had to fight its USA association in the early going, as it worked to find its audience, some of whom didn’t normally watch shows on the network. Still, “people are responding to that, once they catch on to it. It doesn’t feel like a natural fit, but I think they’re trying different things,” Macht says, noting that USA is now expanding further into original sitcoms, like the Denis Leary-created EMT comedy Sirens, which debuts after Suits on March 6.

But as buzz spread, the show’s popularity steadily grew, resulting in a surprise Screen Actors Guild nomination for Adams in 2011. (“I still don’t really believe that happened,” he says now.) Korsh credits a quality leap in Season 2—in which Harvey, Mike and Jessica (Gina Torres) battled the returning co-founding partner, Daniel Hardman, for control of the firm—for further expanding Suits’ fan base. “They made it more serialized, which I really was happy about,” says Adams. “When we started the show, it was not something USA did often, and you’re told not to get too excited about the idea of it being serialized, because it wouldn't really happen. And then as the show progressed and the characters got richer, they started consistently pushing it in that direction. As an actor, it's much more rewarding to feel like you're in a story that's ongoing, rather than just piecemealing the story.”

Meanwhile, viewers began discovering the show beyond its USA home. “When I started seeing it get into a higher gear is when I would go to iTunes and see that Season 1 and Season 2 were in the top ten of most-watched shows,” says Macht, noting also that Suits was also one of 2013’s 10 most-pirated shows. “It’s caught on.”

At the same time, Adams and Macht have been adjusting to the most superficial element of Suits: getting attention for wearing, well, suits. “It took a lot of getting used to,” says Adams. “We're actors; we're not used to dressing that way. In fact, I became an actor primarily so I wouldn't have to spend my life in a suit.” But now he’s warmed to it. “It’s been a very maturing process for me,” says Adams. “In a lot of ways, it’s made me more of a man in that it is forcing me to not hide myself. Every part of your body is on display and peacocked out with these outfits. And there is something kind of magical that happens when you put that thing on. Suddenly there is a confidence level that just goes up here and you feel powerful.”

For his part, Macht has enjoyed turning into somewhat of a fashion plate. “I thought, why not embrace it?” says Macht. “I feel like in many ways Suits does for fashion and for business attire what Sex and the City did for female fashion. I've learned a lot about tailoring and what works and what doesn't, and we’ve taken the Tom Ford model for Harvey's suit and adjusted it here and there to make it even better, I think. And at the end of the day, a really well-tailored, well-made suit can make anyone look really awesome.”

Sartorial attention aside, Adams felt like the show was at long last truly embraced last summer, when thanks to some long-awaited critical praise, “it felt like there were a lot of people starting to discuss Suits in that way, which people have ignored for a long time sort of assuming it was sort of standard, sort of silly TV fare.”

He’s hoping that continues with Season 3 second half, which will tug at the threads left dangling from the midseason cliffhanger, where fellow partner Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman) discovered that Mike Ross might not have gone to Harvard Law as he and Harvey have maintained. These remaining six episodes will delve further into the consequences of Mike’s existence at the firm, which is now known as Pearson Spector. “This decision that they made to bring Mike into the firm, caused a lot of other decisions to be made. And some of those decisions are going to come back to haunt them,” says Korsh. “It's going to build up to, should he stay in the firm or should he leave?” Adds Adams, “I’m really happy about it, because it’s been something that I creatively have been putting my hand in. This can’t go on forever.”

To that end, with Suits now three seasons into its run, Korsh is finally beginning to grapple with the question of how the show will ultimately end, and whether Mike — and by extension, Harvey — will ever be held accountable for their deception. “Recently, I have started giving some thought to it,” says Korsh, who is currently mulling four different outcomes. “One is the truth comes out and Mike goes to jail. That’s a definite possibility. We’ve at least discussed the possibility of the truth coming out and figuring out a way that he does not go to jail. Another option would be the truth would never come out, and another option would be the truth comes out, he goes to jail and you’re able to move past that.”

Korsh’s last idea sounds the most appealing to Macht. “I tried to pitch to Aaron that they get caught and put in jail at the end of Season 3,” says Macht. “And Season 4 is they're actually in jail working as their own lawyers to get themselves out. I thought it would be an incredible departure to see that white-collar prison. What is that and how do these guys manage what's going inside, with the women that are [still] at the firm helping get them out?”

But before he can figure out how Suits will wrap up, Korsh has to focus on the show’s fourth season, which he’s already begun to write. Season 4, which should air this summer, will be shaped by “a huge development at the end of Season 3,” Korsh says. One big change on the agenda: We’re mulling a time jump, which we’ve never done before. Not some hyper-long jump, but we usually pick up the season within a day or two. We’re going to shake up the dynamics of the firm, and we’re very excited about the changes coming.”