I used to be a big fan of the TV show “Suits”. It’s a legal drama about a NYC law firm, where one of the lawyers is a fraud who doesn’t have a law degree.
The show is into its sixth season now, and I caught the first episode of the new season the other day.
It was awful.
I’m not sure when the show jumped the shark or maybe it’s been a slow inexorable decline.
How do you maintain the quality of a product over time?
Here are 6 lessons to be taken from what is, in my opinion, the deterioration of Suits.
1. Don’t forget your competitive advantage
In the first season of Suits, one of the highlights was the character of Harvey Spector. He was suave, slick and confident.
But as the show has progressed, the aspects of the character that made him popular have been undermined and eroded. He now has a perpetual “I’m just about to cry” expression on his face and is a shell of his former self.
Contrast him with the character of Will Gardner from the Good Wife. No matter what was happening, he still retained his composure and his character stayed consistent.
The show used to be a legal drama focused on cases and handled in a light-hearted manner (with lots of swagger).
Many of the characters have changed completely since the show began.
Mike = different
Harvey = different
Rachel = different
Louis = different
If the characters didn’t have the same names, and you watched an episode of Season 1, and compared it to Season 5, you might not know that you’re watching the same show.
This comes back to understanding your product. What is good about it? What is it that attracts customers? If you lose sight of this, with changing times, you could innovate away from your competitive advantage.
2. Fall in love with the market not your product.
This is an expression I first read by marketing genius Jay Abraham, and it applies to this show.
The writers have really fallen for two things:
1. The idea that Mike and Rachel are an interesting couple.
2. That the main characters serve the show well when they act like a family.
This has killed a lot of the intrigue in the show. The antagonism between the main characters is now perfunctory and conflict is quickly sorted out by the end of each episode. Am I the only one who misses Louis Litt as a villain?
3. At least do the basics right
What really stood out for me was how much the dialogue in this show has deteriorated. It used to be clever, witty and compelling.
In this last episode I saw, a few of the main characters were assembled in the office together, and it sounded like the writers had taken a set number of script lines, and decided to distribute them evenly amongst the characters there.
Furthermore almost every episode has some of the following lines:
– “What the hell did you just say?”
– “God damn”
– “What are you talking about?” / “What the hell are you talking about?”
– “…and you know it”
– “You think I don’t know that”
4. You need external feedback
My wife who grew to dislike Suits a couple of seasons before I did, used to say there was a standard “bit” in the show, where a main character would storm over to an antagonist’s office and deliver them a fait accomplit, only to have the antagonist counter the move straight away, which resulted in the character skulking out of the office, temporarily defeated.
If you watch old episodes of Suits, you’ll see it happened over and over again.
This is the sort of thing that it’s impossible to spot if you’re the one making the show. You need to rely on good quality feedback to spot and correct these things.
(I find it hard to believe the writers haven’t realized that they over-use “What the hell are you talking about?”)
5. You can ride the wave a long time
If the show has become as bad as I say, how come it’s into its sixth season?
In the book, Simplify, author Richard Koch talks about the Ford Motor company. He believes that Ford managed to parlay a first mover advantage in automobiles into a century long success story despite the fact that management have made bad decisions for the last 80 years.
Suits had an exceptional first season. It’s managed to ride that for many more seasons since then.
If you establish a quality product (in some industries) it is possible to ride the success for a very long time, even if you do everything wrong after that. (Think “The Simpsons” after Season 5 and possibly Apple post-Steve Jobs).
6. Sometimes it’s really hard to keep producing quality.
One could argue that all shows will eventually struggle to keep going and some concepts have shorter lifespans than others.
In some ways, the biggest curse is for a show to get renewed. Why? Because the show’s creators feel compelled to keep making the show whether they have the ideas to keep it going or not.
My theory is that a lot of shows with amazing first seasons, were often cooked up over many years, giving time to find good ideas and refine them.
But once they hit success, the networks ask the creators to quickly produce the next season within a few months, which results in a steep drop in quality.
(The obvious exception to this rule is when the show is based on source material like a book, in which case it’s possible to keep it going, without the long lead time.)
The hardest thing to do is to say “Sorry I can’t keep doing this” and turn down the money and inducements to keep making a show if you feel like you’ve run out of creative juice for it.
As Jerry Seinfeld (who timed his exit perfectly) said, it’s about showmanship. You have to leave them wanting more.