Just when we thought TV could no longer surprise us, along came Suits, the biggest show of 2023—which was a shock not only because it smashed Nielsen viewership records, but also because the show ended in 2019.
“I certainly never thought that four years after we went off the air, we’d be having any kind of resurgence, much less what’s actually been happening; it’s a great thing,” Suits creator Aaron Korsh told Newsweek.
The legal drama co-starring Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, landed on Netflix in June and racked up more than 45 billion minutes of viewing time in a matter of months. The ensemble series follows Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), who weasels his way into a top New York City law firm—despite never having been to law school—to work along Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) and win complex cases.
It sat atop the Nielsen streaming charts for a record-breaking 12 consecutive weeks, and even though it was eventually knocked from its perch by another Netflix hit, Virgin River, Suits has never been too far from the number one position, spending 15 weeks in the top spot so far in 2023.
Even Markle herself celebrated Suits‘ big year, describing its success as “wild” during a red-carpet interview with Variety in November. Markle began dating Prince Harry while working on the show and eventually married the world’s most eligible bachelor, marking her entry into the British royal family.
Suits first premiered on USA Network in 2011 and enjoyed a successful nine seasons before becoming the juggernaut it now is on Netflix, but how did that happen?
The Meghan Markle Effect
On the surface, many attributed Suits’ boom to the “Meghan Markle effect”—curious viewers tuning in to watch the duchess play paralegal Rachel Zane before she became a household name.
But that would be too simplistic, because even if Markle is bringing viewers to Suits, Korsh points out that it doesn’t explain why they then commit to watching the entire series, long after her departure.
“Obviously she drives a chunk of people to the show… but they stuck with the show, because, in my opinion, they liked it and it was pretty good,” he said, adding that “Meghan was already married to Harry and the show was on Amazon for four years and not as many people watched it there … So just it can’t have just been that effect.”
Markle seemingly agrees, suggesting to Variety of the show’s success: “Good shows are everlasting.”
Instead, it is critical to understand the “perfect storm” that led to Suits’ unprecedented resurgence—which includes premiering on Netflix, people’s need for comforting entertainment after a volatile few years, and yes, even a viral TikTok that introduced Suits to an entirely new audience.
The since-deleted TikTok—which Korsh credits for helping the show reach a wider audience who may have missed it the first time around—went viral in May, before Suits debuted on Netflix. The video showed the scene when Harvey first meets Mike as he’s in the middle of running a drug deal. Harvey is immediately impressed by his quick thinking and encyclopedic law knowledge and decides to hire him on the spot, thus leading to their deception about Mike’s legal qualifications.
The Netflix Effect
Korsh says that there were discussions to sell Suits to a streaming service as far back as Season 5. Amazon’s Prime Video eventually won out because it “was offering a lot more money” than anyone else. It landed on Prime Video in 2015 and eventually also came home to roost at Peacock, which, like USA Network, is owned by Comcast’s NBCUniversal. However, it was only after its debut on Netflix that Suits broke into the Nielsen streaming charts and the zeitgeist, despite the show’s ninth and final season not being available on the streaming service in the U.S.—it’s currently only available to stream on Peacock and Prime Video.
“If you go to Netflix, there’s always this chance that your show can blow up because there was some precedent for it, like with Breaking Bad, and I suppose we could have anticipated a little bit of a resurgence when it hit Netflix, but there’s no world in which I thought that what has happened would happen,” Korsh said, speculating that the streamer’s “algorithm had something to do with its success.”
Netflix still has the most subscribers in the competitive streaming market, at almost 250 million users worldwide. This arguably allows for Netflix premieres to feel like more of an event, with millions of people experiencing a show at the same time across the world, thus enabling viewers to get swept up in a collective conversation around a hot show—as seen with The Queen’s Gambit and Tiger King during the pandemic or the global fascination with South Korean drama Squid Game in 2021.
Netflix has other advantages over rival streamers. Some, such as Hulu and Max, are not currently available outside of the U.S., and others, such as Disney+ and Peacock, can’t always premiere a series at the same time in every territory due to licensing windows and deals with local partners, making the task of turning a streaming debut into a global moment more challenging.
The Return of ‘Blue Sky’ TV
Another potential factor in Suits‘ success is the seeming resurgence of what came to be known as “Blue Sky” programming, which was first pioneered by USA Network and particularly Bonnie Hammer, current vice chairman at NBCUniversal. She was given the reins at the cable network in 2004 when she says it was doing “fine,” but a bit too much like a “worn sneaker or loafer,” when Hammer knew USA Network could perform better.
So, Hammer and her team tried to determine what the world needed in their entertainment, recognizing that people were still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the heightened sense of global anxiety that followed. Thanks to the success of The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999, TV was undergoing an evolution into a new era of “prestige TV,” and many of the popular shows of the era were darker in tone, Hammer noted. Hits of the period included the cynical Nip/Tuck, gritty crime dramas like The Wire and The Shield, and the brutal Western Deadwood.
“Our goal was to create a world that was much more upbeat, literally and figuratively— ‘blue skies.’ It was optimistic programming shot literally under blue skies, outdoors whenever possible,” Hammer said.
The mission was to create, “really good, well written drama, with a dollop of humor.”
Suits was the perfect encapsulation of that formula, but plenty of other shows followed the same strategy: Think other USA mainstays like Psych, Burn Notice, and Royal Pains, or recent Netflix dramas like The Lincoln Lawyer, Virgin River and Sweet Magnolias. Shows which have “interesting, complicated characters that were flawed, but in a likeable way.”
The Need for Connection in a Post-COVID World
The appetite for “Blue Sky” shows like Suits in 2023 makes a lot of sense given the turmoil the world has faced over recent years, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Both collectively and personally there was a real need for something that embraced connection and love, and the joy of that, and then the potential loss of it as well,” says Vanessa Caswill, director of Netflix’s recent movie romcom Love at First Sight, which spent two weeks at the top of the streamer’s Top 10 movie list when it debuted in September.
Starring Haley Lu Richardson (The White Lotus) and Ben Hardy (Bohemian Rhapsody), the film, based on the book The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, is far from the usual romcom fantasy. Instead, it follows two leads who navigate their love story and complicated family dynamics at a chaotic time in their lives.
This commitment to character-building is a thread running through other successful Blue Sky shows, and was a critical element Hammer recognized was needed in USA Network’s programming. In 2005, USA Network changed its marketing slogan to “Characters Welcome,” letting viewers know they could find comfort, but also depth in its programs.
Character Is King
Peter Friedlander is Netflix’s head of scripted series in the U.S. and Canada. He told Newsweek that the secret sauce for Netflix’s successful shows is “extraordinarily well-written characters.” That was always a selling point of Suits, boasting an ensemble of fan-favorite characters beyond the two leads, Harvey and Mike—particularly the women in their lives.
Equal narrative weight was given to Markle’s driven paralegal—and Mike’s paramour—Rachel Zane, Harvey’s razor-sharp assistant Donna Paulson (Sarah Rafferty), and the firm’s managing partner Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), who even received her own short-lived spinoff. It was these women’s dynamics with each other, as much as with Harvey, Mike, and their prickly colleague Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman), that kept viewers tuning in.
That thread of female friendship and empowerment is evident in other breezy Netflix hits such as Sweet Magnolias, which was recently renewed for a fourth season. Its showrunner, Sheryl J. Anderson, says while some critics might dismiss her show about three women best friends from South Carolina as “soft,” that criticism couldn’t be further from the truth. Anderson said her female leads are “strong and tough and resilient,” which is part of what makes them relatable.
“The reawakening of the fact that you can have super strong, smart, funny women interacting with each other and then men are the second tier is something that women have enjoyed,” Anderson told Newsweek. “And our men are lovely and smart and compassionate, for the most part. But for the women to be in first position, I think has been that the main thing our viewers have responded to.”
Witty and relatable characters (and a large dose of sexual tension) are also a big calling card for another Netflix smash hit, Virgin River, which has become one of its most successful original shows. Since premiering in 2019, Virgin River has steadily grown in popularity year over year. The second part of Season 5—including its first ever Christmas episode, directed by Gail Harvey—hits Netflix on November 30.
“People are tired of watching heavier shows and the world is very hard now, so I think it’s kind of nice to sit on your couch and see how Jack (Martin Henderson) and Mel (Alexandra Breckenridge) are doing,” Harvey said.
Set in the remote northern California town of Virgin River, the romantic drama has been a number one hit for Netflix and has spent 23 weeks in the global top 10 in 77 countries. While it can be a source of comfort viewing, Harvey said it also holds “a mirror up” to people’s everyday lives and does not shy away from heavier topics such as addiction and trauma.
“We all fall in love; we all have tragedies, and we all have weird family stuff. People are relating to it and it’s reaching through,” she said.
But making quality shows with relatable characters at a time when society really needs them is not the only formula for success, say TV bosses Friedlander and Hammer. A bit of business acumen and planning comes into play as well.
Netflix and Chill
It’s notable that Suits had been available on a major streaming platform like Amazon for years before hitting the zeitgeist again when it debuted on Netflix, and many rival studios—perhaps grudgingly—concede that Netflix has an advantage when it comes to bringing their titles to new audiences. Disney CEO Bob Iger once compared his company’s licensing deal with Netflix to “selling nuclear weapons technology to a third-world country, and now they’re using it against us,” after Netflix became a global streaming phenomenon in part because it was a user-friendly aggregator of popular shows and movies from other platforms before it started producing its own originals.
Nowadays, licensing long-running shows or hit movies to deep-pocketed Netflix can still provide a lucrative payday for other content producers who need money to pour into their own burgeoning streaming services—Warner Bros. Discovery and Disney are just two of the companies to recently license major titles to Netflix instead of keeping them exclusively on their own platforms. These deals were part of cost cutting strategies spearheaded by the media giants’ respective CEOs David Zaslav and Iger.
The exchange also works for Netflix because it allows the platform to supplement its already immense library of original programming with series that have multiple seasons to binge. Once they’re done, Netflix’s much-discussed algorithm is ready with recommendations for similar shows to watch next, keeping users on the platform for even longer.
In 2023, Netflix’s licensed hits like Suits and Grey’s Anatomy also allowed audiences to discover content that was perhaps new to them while production was halted on Netflix’s returning favorites like Stranger Things and Wednesday during the months-long actors’ and writers’ strikes.
But savvy licensing deals for shows such as Suits and Schitt’s Creek (a Canadian comedy that also benefited from the so-called “Netflix Bump” when it debuted on the service in 2017 following two seasons flying under the radar on Pop TV) also allows Netflix to provide options for subscribers based on their varied viewing habits and overall consumer demand, especially if Netflix doesn’t currently have many similar types of shows on service.
“Variety is so important to what people come to Netflix for,” Friedlander said, adding that subscribers will generally consume six different genres of content on average when watching Netflix, with the streamer aiming to have something on the service for every taste.
Therefore, it’s in Netflix’s best interest to license series from rivals to help keep viewers engaged and watching more on the platform, while simultaneously investing in its own original content to give people the diversity of programming they want.
In other words, it’s what Friedlander describes as “the Netflix effect” of “making great shows that Netflix members love but also continue to bring some of their favorite content when it’s available.”
A show will run for multiple seasons if it’s “popular and it’s working,” Friedlander says, but Netflix will always prioritize the characters, authentic storytelling, and content variety over longevity, not wanting to drag out a series just for the sake of it.
“We want it to be the best journey for the characters and what we think will pay off for the fan,” Friedlander told Newsweek.
Naturally, the search is on to find TV’s next big breakthrough, and the fascination with Suits has even led to talks of a spin-off series at NBCUniversal, which is still in the deal-making stage. Korsh was coy when it came to sharing details of the new show, but confirmed there was a “possibility of Suits characters turning up.”
Hammer was more forthcoming.
“I don’t know if I would look at it as a spin-off but rather an extension of whatever Suits could be in today’s world… Aaron’s one of the few people who could really pull it off and it would feel authentic to this time,” she said.
Korsh did promise that the addictive tone of Suits—including its wit, focus on characters and breezy optimism—would be present in the new show.
It was this winning formula that made Suits such a hit on USA and an even bigger juggernaut when backed by the power of Netflix.
If it was easy to capture lightning in a bottle, every streaming service would have a Suits-sized hit on their hands, and behind the scenes, programming executives are likely already scrambling to try and figure out how to replicate its success. Now the hunt for the next Suits begins.
Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.
Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.
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