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USA’s Drama Palette Adds Darker Shades

Cabler known for blue-sky fare ups the edginess factor with 'Graceland'

They are young, good-looking and in the business of hunting bad guys under Southern California’s sunny skies.

Sound like the ingredients for a USA Network drama series? Sure — until “Graceland” opens with an undercover federal agent pretending to shoot up heroin as part of a drug bust.

USA is very deliberately trying to move a few yards out of its blue-sky comfort zone with its latest original drama. The ensembler toplined by Broadway vet Aaron Tveit and “Rescue Me’s” Daniel Sunjata revolves around a clutch of top law enforcement agents who live in a fancy beach house.

The tone is a little darker than USA’s signature dramas (think “Burn Notice,” “White Collar” and “Suits”), which tend to blend action with a lighter touch of romance or buddy comedy. The characters in “Graceland” are a little less charming than on other USA fare, and most notably, there’s a serialized element to the show, which bows June 6, and involves a secret investigation that unfolds within the group, unbeknownst to all but one of them.

USA Network co-presidents Chris McCumber and Jeff Wachtel championed “Graceland” because they loved the script from Jeff Eastin, who already shepherds “White Collar.” But the fact that it ran against the grain of other USA skeins made it more appealing.

Complacency is the mortal enemy of sound programming decisions, Wachtel and McCumber stress.

“We can’t lay back and play it safe,” Wachtel says. “We’ve got to keep pushing out. We are fortunate to have a reservoir of good will with our audience.”

USA’s other series have tended to focus on close-ended storytelling because for years that was seen as the best way to bring as many viewers as possible. That was important when USA was establishing itself as a purveyor of distinctive original series like “Monk” and “Psych.”

But there is no question that it’s serialized dramas that generate most of the juice on cable these days, from AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and “Mad Men” to HBO’s “Game of Thrones” to FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.” The growth of options for seeking out past episodes via DVR, Web streaming and VOD has made serialized dramas more accessible to viewers who haven’t been there from the start. And those Act 4 cliffhangers that drive binge viewing are also powerful tools to ensure that new episodes are can’t-miss live viewing appointments, lest a fan miss out on the social blitz that ensues.

USA has been experimenting with longer arcs on some of its existing shows, including “Suits.”

“With “Suits” we found that a brand new audience came to us with this show — young, educated affluent guys in their mid-20s who had never sampled USA before,” McCumber says. “Now we think we can grow the pie here and increase the reach of the network.”

The USA toppers are also aware that their network has a reputation for fielding shows of a similar tone. The F-word (“formula”) is often used to describe USA (and not necessarily in a pejorative way). But they know the net needs to stay fresh — that’s why they took a flyer last summer with Sigourney Weaver in the miniseries “Political Animals.” The USA aud yawned at the program, but that didn’t dissuade Wachtel and McCumber from trying to paint again with different colors.

“If people have thought of us as bluesky before, now we joke that there are 50 shades of blue,” Wachtel says. “Chris and I have a job of managing a maturing asset while retaining the pioneering spirit that got us here. When we picked up “Monk 10” years ago, we were a network known for “Walker, Texas Ranger” reruns.”

In that same spirit, USA is plowing major resources into developing a batch of half-hour comedies, expected to be unveiled May 16 at the cabler’s upfront, and more high-profile unscripted fare.

As far-fetched as the “Graceland” premise sounds, it’s based on the true story of a ritzy beach house that became a hub for undercover officers from various federal agencies — FBI, CIA, DEA, etc. — after the property was seized as part of a criminal investigation. Eastin developed the concept in 2003 for NBC. He kept the script in his back pocket for years until “White Collar” took off.

Eastin’s determination to bring the project to fruition was a big selling point to the USA toppers. At its core “Graceland” revolves around a motley group of agents who form an unusual bond.

“One of the things that we loved when Jeff pitched us the show is that yes, these are characters who deal with awful people and cases, but they’re also a family where Wednesday night is spaghetti night at the house,” Wachtel says.

Adds McCumber: “It’s edgier than most of the (shows) we’ve done before, but we feel like it’s still in the family of the type of shows we’re known for. We think the time is right for us, and for our audience.”

Plenty of Action

USA Network is bolstered by a deep bench of original series. The cabler’s top 5 shows average more than 4.5 million total viewers per episode for their latest seasons:

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