FXA couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Ryan Murphy and his grand plan for world domination, and in so doing, referenced the network that’s helping him to do it: FX. Well, I just watched the season finale of Legion yesterday, and kind of can’t stop watching Feud, and see the promos for new seasons of Fargo and Archer, two of my favorites, and I was reminded once again that FX — and its comedic sibling, FXX — is the best network on television.
Not the best cable network, mind you, but the best network, full stop.
Look at the run that FX president John Landgraf and his team have had over the last few years. Go back as far as Sons of Anarchy, which pretty much started this run 10 years ago, and then Justified, only one of the five or six best shows of the 21st century so far, and it’s tough to find any real swings and misses in the shows it has put on the air.
Think about a network that has the guts to hand complete control over a sitcom to a little-known comedian like Louis C.K., not ask questions, and not even see the finished product until right before they’re set to air the episode. Who does this? What kind of demented executive has the confidence in his convictions to make a move like that?
Well, Landgraf, obviously, and it shows in the kind of eclectic fare the network — and, for argument’s sake, I’m treating FX and FXX as a single outlet — puts out on a regular basis. Take a look at the programming and try to find a common theme, something that links them all together. Every other network has some kind of identity to it, but you can’t really say that about FX, which is a good thing. Legion, for instance, is a psychedelic mind trip of a superhero show, without ever really delving into any kind of superhero tropes, while Fargo is an incredibly smart, evocative, outside-the-box adaptation of an Oscar-winning Coen brothers movie that, somehow, is the film’s equal.
In that case, the thing that unites these two completely disparate shows is the man behind them, Noah Hawley, who won an Emmy for the first season of Fargo in 2014, and is clearly some kind of creative savant.
But that, actually, goes a long way towards answering the question about what Landgraf and FX are doing right. Working with talented creators and allowing them the freedom to tell their stories their way will buy a lot of goodwill with both viewers and critics. This doesn’t always work, of course — occasionally there’s a gem like Terriers that only lasts a season because not enough people watch it — but it’s hard to point to a show the network has broadcast that hasn’t been either an outright hit or a critical one, if not both.
Murphy’s trio of shows is a pretty good example, with American Horror Story entering its seventh season, American Crime Story ready to debut its second later this year and already planning a third for 2018, and a second season planned for Feud, announced long before we were even halfway through this first season. Also, consider the fact that, while we’re waiting for a sixth season of Louie that might never come, C.K. and his frequent partner-in-crime Pamela Adlon gave us the equally charming Better Things last fall. Or that FX also gave us another candidate for the best new show of this TV season in Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Or Zach Galifianakis’ Baskets, which had the guts to cast Louie Anderson as the title character’s mother, and who was rewarded with an Emmy for his supporting performance. Or the creepy Tom Hardy period drama Taboo, which was as fascinating as it was baffling. Or the soapy horror series The Strain from genre god Guillermo Del Toro. Or that it is currently airing the fifth and penultimate season of what many consider to be the very best show on TV, The Americans.
Mind you, I have barely mentioned Archer and haven’t touched You’re the Worst, both consistently among the funniest shows on TV, and haven’t mentioned at all one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is not my personal cup of tea, but considering that it’s been renewed for its 13th and 14th seasons, that should tell you all you need to know.
Go back and look at that lineup of shows, and please try to tell me there is another network out there that can put up a competitive list.
Seriously. I’m all ears. Because I’ve been wracking my brain and can’t come close to one.
Still, while these creators all turn out tremendous work that people are clearly interested in watching, it’s curious to wonder what it was about Louis C.K. that made Landgraf have so much faith in him. Or in Hawley, for that matter. Sure, Hawley had created the interesting — and short-lived — ABC cop show The Unusuals, but I watched that show, and even I would be hard-pressed to say I saw the genius that became totally evident with Fargo, and now Legion. Same thing for Glover, who is as talented an actor (and rapper) as you get, but who knew he had the vision to put together something as dynamite as Atlanta?
This isn’t meant to be a total tribute to the management prowess of Landgraf and his team, though it’s probably reading that way. The simple truth is that the finished product speaks for itself. Aside from the respectable viewer numbers, there are lots of awards, as well as a recent push for diversity in front of and behind the camera (after it was pointed out that the network’s record on such matters was spotty, to say the least), and with the success of Murphy’s shows, opportunities for older actresses that they might not be getting elsewhere.
Of course, there are questions, too. Co-creator and star Glenn Howerton might be leaving It’s Always Sunny, and if he does, what does that mean for the show? Will we ever get more episodes of Louie? Is the long-discussed SOA spinoff Mayans MC going to fly? For that matter, is a mainstream audience ready for a show like the upcoming Snowfall, which chronicles the introduction of cocaine to South Central LA in the mid-’80s? With Glover working on the Han Solo movie and co-star Zazie Beetz signed up for the Deadpool sequel, will audiences still care when Atlanta returns in 2018? How much freedom for creators is too much? At what point does something come back to haunt the network?
But even with all of that to consider, it’s sort of hard to get too worked up about it, simply because we have now been conditioned to believe that, pretty much across the board, whatever FX is going to put out is going to be worth watching. They have earned the right to take chances and expect that we’ll come along to watch, whenever the programs in question show up.
When I go into meetings with people, in either my journalist capacity or my screenwriting one, any time television is discussed, people always return to the same thing, which is that if you have a show, you want to be on FX. Otherwise, you want to be FX.
Other than actually hating FX, I’m not sure there’s a better compliment. Not in this business, at least.