How USA Network Turned Suits Into Its First Scripted Series Franchise

Spinoff Pearson debuts alongside the drama’s final season

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During its nearly four decades of existence, USA Network has never aired a spinoff series from one of its scripted shows, but that streak ends tonight with the debut of new drama Pearson. The new series revolves around the character of Jessica Pearson, played by Gina Torres on Suits, and airs directly after Suits, which returns for its ninth and final season.

USA had been interested in a Suits spinoff “for years,” said Suits creator Aaron Korsh, who co-co-created Pearson with Daniel Arkin.  But having never created a series or served as showrunner prior to Suits, it took Korsh a long time to get comfortable with the idea of focusing on anything other than that legal drama, about college dropout Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), who passes himself off as a lawyer even though he never attended law school, and his lawyer mentor, Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht).

“So the reason I was resistant at first was, I didn’t want to undertake having another branch of this tree when I didn’t still feel like the tree was stable,” said Korsh, who had come up with a spinoff idea (a prequel revolving around lawyer Robert Zane, played by Wendell Pierce, who is the father of Meghan Markle’s Rachel Zane) but never had time to develop it.

Then Torres went to Bonnie Hammer, then chairman of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group, and pitched the idea for Pearson, in which her character, a recently disbarred New York lawyer, adjusts to new life as the right hand fixer to Chicago’s mayor. Hammer took it to Jeff Wachtel, then president of Universal Content Productions (UCP), which produces Suits, who in turn called Korsh.

“I thought it was a great idea, and they were so excited and enthusiastic about it that it did get me—it was like that perfect time to re-bring it up. And then we took it from there,” said Korsh.

USA, too, was on board. “We loved it, because having a strong female character as the lead we thought would be a great way to continue the Suits legacy,” said Chris McCumber, president, entertainment networks, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment.

While USA has made TV movies based on series—including a 2011 Burn Notice prequel focusing on Sam Axe, the character played by Bruce Campbell, and two movies continuing the story of Psych—the network had never commissioned a series spinoff from one of its scripted shows. (In April, the network debuted its first unscripted spinoff show, Growing Up Chrisley, based on Chrisley Knows Best.)

“Suits was the one that really made sense,” said McCumber. “Doing a spinoff, you want to take the existing audience and use that to build from. Obviously, it’s great IP, but then it also has to live on its own ultimately, so you need to make sure that the show itself can stand on its own. And we know that Pearson can stand on its own.”

As Korsh was developing Pearson, he separately worked with the network to decide that Suits would end after Season 9. “When it all timed out together, we realized that the timing between Suits sunsetting on a ninth season, and being able to hand off to Pearson, obviously made a lot of sense,” said McCumber, who paired the shows together this summer.

With Suits about to end, Korsh said it’s unlikely he’ll revisit his “radically different” original spinoff idea, set in the late ’80s. “It was a prequel, probably somewhat inspired by Better Call Saul: Young Robert Zane graduating from Harvard Law and moving back to Harlem, where he came from, and trying to make it make it in a white-shoe law firm, having some people that he associated with that were not a member of white-shoe society.”

While USA would likely welcome yet another opportunity to continue the Suits franchise, “right now, between Suits and Pearson, my time is pretty full,” said Korsh. “I’m also excited possibly to do something that has nothing to do with [the Suits world].”