FX at 20: Cabler’s Dramas Probe Dark Side of Human Nature

Basic cabler's propensity for edgy content whets creatives' appetites

Darkness becomes FX.

Whether it’s the Southern Gothic tone of “Justified,” the evil incarnate of “American Horror Story,” the Cold War paranoia of “The Americans” or the underlying menace of “Sons of Anarchy,” the deeply flawed characters populating these shows and the intricate plots involving murder, mayhem, duplicity and betrayal have set FX apart from other basic cable television programming.

The cable net arrived on the air in 1994, but it wasn’t truly born until 2002 when the intense and disturbing original drama “The Shield” burst on the scene to critical and ratings success. That first year, “The Shield” brought home an Emmy for lead actor Michael Chiklis’ performance as a rogue L.A. cop that started FX’s journey to the dark side of human nature.

From that sprang other unsettling dramas, including “Nip/Tuck” and even the wry Denis Leary series “Rescue Me.” It’s a path that has proven successful for FX. In 2013 cable rankings, “Sons of Anarchy” snagged the No. 3 spot behind AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad,” but ahead of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” “Justified,” “The Americans” and “The Bridge” all landed in the top 30 cable shows for the year.

Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for HitFix and author of “The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slinger and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever,” says FX was the first basic cable network to take on HBO.

“With ‘The Shield,’ FX opened up a universe to prove what HBO was doing was replicable,” Sepinwall says.

And he loves FX for taking a walk on the noir side.

“They have one of the better batting averages, and anything they are going to do on the drama side is going to be interesting,” he says. “They have a very smart team with interesting creators like Ryan Murphy and Kurt Sutter and they leave them alone. It’s a good place to be.”

That creative latitude has served the network well, especially in the early days. FX CEO John Landgraf says the network progressed to these darker themes naturally because creators wanted to explore different character options.

“When you force them to make the same choices because of the networks’ comfort zone, you often end up with shows that look exactly the same,” Landgraf says. “We are in the business of surprising, shocking and delighting in subtle ways that advances the medium. And you can’t do that through the collective taste of me or those I work with. You have to leave it to the creative people.”

On the surface, the FX line-up might look like a spy show, a biker show, a supernatural show, and a quirky cop show, but Landgraf sees his programming as so much more.

“Artists want to entertain, but they also want to explore the human condition and compel an audience to explore that too,” Landgraf says. “You don’t get into Troy unless the horse is appealing. So we make sure that horse is tall, proud and something you want to usher into your home. But ultimately what we want is to get the things the writers want to explore, the guys inside, into that space.”

Joe Weisberg, creator of “The Americans,’’ says he developed the series for FX because the idea of doing a show where the main characters worked for the KGB was not scary to the network. “And they really knew how to take something in its nascent stage and turn it into a great show,” Weisberg says. “It was intriguing for them.”

Weisberg’s partner Joel Fields had worked with FX on and off for years.

“I knew from experience what a uniquely supportive place it was, and how it cultivates its artists,” Fields says. “It’s challenging to work there in the best sense of the word. You feel empowered to make your own choices and make your own mistakes, which is unique in the TV landscape. FX is about trust. We don’t have to hide our struggles from them.”

Fields says when he first worked with FX on “Over There,” he was shocked when Landgraf told him there was no formula. A scene could take seven pages — or 15.
“He told me just to be compelling and it was an interesting lesson,” Fields says.

Almost all of the FX series were developed for the network, including its foray into anthology with Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story,” which has done exceedingly well for the network. “Coven” landed the No. 1 spot for 2013 miniseries and “Asylum” grabbed No. 3. FX got into the limited series business with “Fargo” this spring. That tantalizingly sinister project lured movie actor Billy Bob Thornton to the smallscreen.

“When I was coming up, if you went from film to television it meant something was wrong,” Thornton told TV critics at the January press tour. “The motion picture studios make big event movies, broad comedies and action movies. For actors who want to do good dramatic work, with dark humor and drama, you have to do it on television.”

“Fargo” executive producer Warren Littlefield applauded FX’s Nick Grad for not expecting the limited series to strictly follow the film.

“I think it was really liberating for us in the creative process to be inspired by the Coen brothers’ film, but to be able to create something that was original,” Littlefield says.

Co-president of FX Networks and FX Prods. Eric Schrier has been at the network since 1999, starting as an assistant to then-president Kevin Reilly.

“The core tenets we look for is bold, unique, subversive and fresh,” Schrier says. “We like to go after territory not explored before and that appeals to writers, producers and actors. We have shows that are literary in ambition and also wildly entertaining, not just for people in New York or L.A., but everywhere.”

“The Shield” certainly set the tone for FX and “Sons of Anarchy” continues that same kind of edgy storytelling. “SOA” creator and showrunner Kurt Sutter started his TV career on “The Shield” before the network was branded.

He says when Landgraf came on board in 2004, he envisioned a certain trajectory in how he wanted to grow the network and Sutter’s kind of storytelling was able to tap into that. Sutter recalls sitting in a room pitching “SOA” and Landgraf immediately responding to the material in a visceral way.

“He got the storytelling, the uniqueness from the literary dynamic and deeper themes and nature of the world, while still having the violence and pulp quality that you saw on ‘The Shield,’” Sutter says. “It comes down to people who embrace storytelling and are willing to take a risk on something perhaps that doesn’t fit into a mold or a genre.”

Not that it was an easy sell. Sutter says the then-top FX exec, Peter Chernin, was not in favor of his Shakespeare-inspired biker show. The exec understood criminals in “The Sopranos,” but not a show about “dirty white bikers.”

“But Landgraf saw the potential. I know very few people who would put their career on the line, and he certainly swayed in the breeze over this show,” Sutter says. “The mentality at most networks is ‘how do I keep my job’ and everything just rolls off of that. John’s smart enough to know if you reverse that thinking and make it about the projects, you don’t have to worry about your job.”

Grad, co-president with Schrier, previously served as executive VP of original programming and development.

He has been at FX since May 2002 and has been credited with developing such series as “The Americans,” “The Bridge” and “Justified.”

“Our dramas have a muscular quality about them,” Grad says. “We don’t do quirky, comedic one-hours. All of our shows are pretty operatic in tone. So far, we haven’t done a successful drama that has not been muscular.”

And those are the kinds of series that appeal to some of the most creative voices in television.

“When I see talented showrunners and writers like Kyle Killen (Fox’s ‘Lone Star,’ ‘Awake,’ ABC’s ‘Mind Games’),” Sepinwall observes, “I say they need to go to FX right now.”

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