Critic's Notebook: How Does USA Network Solve a Problem Like 'Shooter'?

Shooter - H 2016
Dean Buscher/USA Network

Originally set to premiere on Tuesday, USA Network's Shooter was pushed back a week to July 26 after the tragic shootings in Dallas and, after more tragic shootings in Baton Rouge, it has now been delayed again. Shooter will premiere at some point in the fall. Unless it doesn't, because it turns out that if you make a drama about a former Marine sniper in which a supporting cast of firearms are filmed with far more love and care than leading man Ryan Phillippe, you run the risk of ending up with a show that can't be aired once real-life events intercede.

The pilot for Shooter begins with the loud crack of a fired gun and follows with still photos depicting the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Lee Harvey Oswald and Gandhi, as well as the famous image of students reacting to the Kent State massacre. I have a pretty simple rule of thumb on these things: If you want to be taken as calorie-free escapism, unconnected to whatever horrors keep popping up in the headlines, you don't get to invoke freaking Gandhi to assert your self-importance.

Every viewer's reaction to the fetishized treatment of guns and gun violence in Shooter will likely vary, just as every viewer's reaction to a Facebook Live video or Periscope video of an actual shooting will vary. I cringed at the various masturbatory montages of weapon preparation and got no giddiness from the non-stop racking of focus on phallic gun sights, the slow-motion ejaculation of spent cartridges, the orgasmic spew of brain matter. Shooter may feature brief lip-service to the importance of safety and authorized hunting, but generally this is a show that gets off on its guns in the most graphic way possible at perhaps the worst historical moment possible.

The pity here is that the only charge Shooter generates is from your response to its hoplophilia. The series itself is pretty negligible, though far from inept, in the same vein as source material Point of Impact, a novel by Stephen Hunter, and Antoine Fuqua's 2007 movie.

The film, which starred Mark Wahlberg, made just over $95 million worldwide and probably turned a tiny profit and has probably attracted a bigger audience on DVD and in endless cable airings, but it was hardly a smash hit. Could it even make it into theaters today? I don't know. American Sniper was a huge hit, but that was a true story, a heroic story, and it had Clint Eastwood behind it. This is a so-so potboiler, a frivolous show about a thing that isn't frivolous.

As it stands in 2016, as great as the temptation may be to rip hot-button stories from the headlines, the risk of being topical is all too evident from a promotional standpoint. When it comes to Shooter, the fact is that USA's concerns of real-life overlap appear to be related to recent killings of authority figures, but not to general mass-fatality shootings or to individual shootings of civilians that have received media attention. The massacre in Orlando didn't cause USA to blink at the original July 19 premiere, nor did the network flinch when the shooting of Alton Sterling and the aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castile were caught on video.

And make no mistake, the optics are that USA cares about this aspect of the show from a promotional standpoint, not a social responsibility standpoint. The network keeps emphasizing that Shooter has the support of veterans' rights groups and that's the side of topicality USA and producers gave attention to, because there is nothing close to unforeseeable about the problems they're suddenly having getting the show on the air. Look at the list of mass-shooting events in the past year or the past two years or the past three years. Every one of those shootings is a data point around which it was always going to be difficult to promote and launch this show and every one of them is a data point that might have caused Shooter to have to delay episodes out of a sensitivity that wasn't really considered when the show was developed and produced. I applaud USA's optimism in believing that the fall is going to be markedly different, and heaven knows that's what I hope and pray for, but this feels more like wheel-spinning than a final plan.

With a semi-recognizable brand name (albeit one that is at the root of these delays) and variably recognizable stars in Phillippe and Omar Epps and Eddie McClintock and Tom Sizemore, Shooter now presents a huge problem for USA. There's too much money in the show for it to go away entirely, so it's eventually going to air. For some squeamish viewers, Shooter probably was never watchable, but for a core audience easily big enough to make the show a hit, this trepidation is already a sign of USA's wussification. And once USA has set a precedent for the events that cause the network to flinch, what comes next? Does USA get one of those workplace safety signs that read "XX Days Without a Mass Shooting Incident" and put it up in the office, and when XX = 30, does it then become kosher to announce a new premiere date? And from there, what will be enough to constitute another day? Does it have to be cops getting killed or can it be a certain number of civilians? And if USA sets a premiere and leaves it there regardless of what happens in the world, is the network prepared to deal with the "So you postponed the premiere for that, but not for this" math? Is USA prepared to set a premiere and guarantee that all subsequent episodes will air on schedule regardless of what happens or will the airing of Shooter literally have a week-to-week "What's happening on CNN?" metric of appropriateness?

This is a callous and dispassionate way of looking at what USA faces now when these are true tragedies made all the worse by their regularity. And I'm writing about a TV show. But this is where we are, and, like I already said, somewhere along the line the network should have imagined this might be possible.

After USA announced the revised July 26 premiere for Shooter, I wrote a review for The Hollywood Reporter that said, "Given the subject matter and given our turbulent times, the chances of it actually premiering on July 26 seem moderate and the chances of it airing a full season without another postponement are close to nil." Indeed, that review also has been shelved. The bottom line, though, was that for a better, or at least more thoughtful, show, there might be cause to defend its autonomy and air-ability — but for a series this middling, there's little worth fighting for.