Next week, FX will roll out two new comedies: “Better Things,” starring and created by Pamela Adlon, and “Atlanta,” from Donald Glover. Both are already getting tremendous advance buzz — and both reflect an expanded push from the cabler, long known as the home of premium drama, into half-hour. “It’s good to be balanced as a network,” says Eric Schrier, FX’s programming president. “It’s good to have both polarities within your brand, because it’s all cyclical, and you never know where a great idea’s going to come from.”
Here, Schrier and fellow president Nick Grad tell Variety about the strategy for building their comedy slate, their desire to get more animation on the schedule and their Emmy hopes for “The Americans.”
Let’s talk about your fall programming strategy. What you were looking to do with comedy?
Grad: I would say all of our comedies need to fall under the same criteria of: they need to be really funny, or really entertaining, but at the same time, be about something, and have a real strong point of view, and I think that ratio is in different ways. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” — they put these amazing weekly points of view through this crazy, broad comedy filter, and “Louie” was finding ways to do it in a much different way. Whether it’s “ha ha” funny, or whatever that level is, it’s both entertaining, but it really is about something. So we’re trying to chase what’s a great point of view. I think between Pamela and Donald’s point of view, we feel like we’ve finally found those successors to “Louie.”
Schrier: I think we’ve always looked across the board for distinct programming, really bold programming, and I think the ideal FX show is something that’s wildly entertaining in a comedic sense that’s really funny, and also has a point of view, and is thought provoking. When we went from having 10 shows, to 12 shows, to now to having 18 shows, it enabled us to broaden out the types of things that we had and try new things. Comedy is really fun for us to do as a development, because you have people come in, and have these really unique ideas, and you’re like, “OK, let’s do that. Let’s order a script or a pilot.”And that’s what happened with both Donald and with Pamela.
Talk about the process of developing “Better Things” and “Atlanta.” How did those come together for you?
Schrier: We’ve known Pamela off of working on “Louie,” and obviously, she’s been an amazingly talented actress that’s very successful, and (she and Louis C.K.) said, “Hey, we want to do this show.” Pamela was such a unique artist, and has such a unique point of view, and has such a unique life experience, and that’s what she wanted to document. They wrote the script, and it was great, and so we shot the pilot, and she really is the auteur of that show.
Donald is the same way in “Atlanta.” It’s really his show, and he’s the auteur there. He had written on “30 Rock,” and obviously is an accomplished musician. We went through the paces, and the development process of when we ordered the pilot, we were like, “What director can we get?”, and we went through all these different names, and Donald’s like, “The one person I feel most comfortable with is Hiro Murai,” who directed his music videos.
Grad: Donald wrote a very impassioned plea for him, and you can’t read that, and say, “No, we have to put in the safe choice.” I think development is fun, on the script level you get to really experiment, and then from there in the pilot level, you’re like, “Okay, let’s support this vision as best we possibly can, and take the Hippocratic Oath, and do no harm.” I think what always was there with Donald was it’s such a really unique point of view, and I think what really came through as we shot the pilot and further episodes, is that this show can be also really, really funny, and it’s really good. Credit to Donald, he wants to do things that are really about something.
Where do you think “Atlanta” falls on the comedy scale?
Grad: Actually, I think there’s a lot more comedy even in the subsequent episodes from the pilot. I think the pilot’s really funny. I think those guys together are really funny.
Schrier: It comes down to intent, too. What does the artist intend to do? There’s a New York magazine article, where he said, “My first intent in the show is to make people laugh.” You can have dramatic elements in it, but its intent is to be funny, and to make people laugh, and to entertain in that way.
Grad: In a situational, not in like a joke way, just in the absurd situations that these guys find themselves in. I think that the thing that’s so exciting and fun about half-hour right now is how malleable it can be. I think there’s a lot of pioneers for it, but at least for us, “Louie” really opened up what half-hour can be. It can be anything you want it to be. Whereas with a one-hour drama, there are parameters. You can be different, but you still have to tell this [story], have a plot, and characters, and how they relate to it. I think, especially you see in “Louie,” “Better Things,” “Baskets,” and “Atlanta,” an episode can be wildly different. It’s much more surprising, and every episode has a different balance of drama and comedy. I think that’s what’s so fun about them.
It does feel like across the board, from broadcast to cable to streaming, everyone is experimenting with the half-hour form right now.
Schrier: Yeah. That’s what’s so exciting. What our core basis of how we work with talent is that we don’t propose that we know how to write a show, or direct a show, or edit a show better than any of these people. Our goal is to understand what their point of view is, and their intent, and to support that, and create an environment for them to do the best work. With Pamela it was, she had a very unique writing process, and Donald wanted to have his writer’s office at his house, or some house. I don’t know whose house it was. He was like, “I want to be at a house,” and he wanted to do things differently. We work around that, within the parameters, to support it.
Grad: I think we’re also trying to make things that are really different. What I might imagine would happen at broadcast networks or other places is that the fear is to end up with something that’s different. For us, I think I fear something that feels familiar, or that’s been seen before. I think we’re always encouraging people and helping them do something that’s different that hasn’t been done.
Schrier: We love being surprised by the choices that people make. When you get points of view or people as talented as this, and getting to work with them, whether it was from Louis, or Pamela, or the “Sunny” guys, or Donald Glover, just seeing what they can come up with a show they want to tell is really fun.
What do you think about the state of comedy in general now, just from a competitive perspective?
Schrier: I think it’s great. What’s great about, there are pitfalls to the amount of television being produced, I’m sure you can circle back to our boss’s comments on that. What’s great about it, though, is that there are so many platforms for different points of view and different artists to tell their stories. I think there’s a lot less pressure on comedies than there are on dramas because their cost structure is different. You’re seeing a lot of innovation in that form. We did it with “Louie” where we kind of said, “OK, you can go off and make your show” — the infamous story. That’s because we designed a business model that supported that, that was not as high-risk. When you get more people in the cable space doing comedy at a very low cost, there can be more innovation.
Grad: I also think that every great new comedy, to me, is its own language. Maybe it takes people a little while to fall into the rhythm of that, and really let the infection take hold. I think part of the reason that some of the broadcast networks are struggling in comedy is that I think business is they need things to just hit right away. I find that it’s much harder to do that with comedy. I feel like it’s a big word-of-mouth business. I think almost every half hour, most of them that I watch someone’s telling me, “Have you seen this show? You’ve got to watch it.” If you wanted to talk about “Sunny,” “Louie,” and “Archer” and their trajectories, it was all from people saying, “You’ve got to see this show.” I think there’s a business where we can really foster those voices and it doesn’t need to be from episode one this smash hit. They can really build over time, so it’s been very helpful.
Schrier: Especially on the comedies, we let them really try to find an audience first. In the history I’ve been at this network, we’ve never pulled a show from the air because of its ratings. We’ve never said, “We ordered thirteen episodes, we’ll only air six.” That just doesn’t happen here. We kind of let shows find their course. It takes time. Word of mouth is very important to a comedy and it takes time sometimes for them to find their voices as well.
What’s upcoming on your development slate that would fill in some holes for you?
Schrier: We’re shooting a pilot called “Ride or Die” from Nina Pedrad and Cristin Milioti. It’s another female-based comedy, which is something we’ve tried to develop for a long time.
Grad: We’ve announced we’re going to make a pilot that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are directing that Sonny Lee’s writing. It’s really funny, but it’s really got a very sharp point of view about where we are vis a vis technology right now.
Schrier: We see animation as a place where we feel like we can be more prolific. We’ve had a couple of shows we’ve tried to pair up with “Archer” that haven’t worked out, but that show continues to be super strong for us. We’re doing a pilot now with Louis C.K. and Albert Brooks and we’re going to be growing our animation slate soon and trying to really innovate in that form. I think that’s a form we feel like we can be really successful in.
Is there a series that’s out there that you wish you had?
Grad: “Silicon Valley,” “Master of None.”
Schrier: I tried very hard to buy “Black-ish.” They actually wanted it to be a cable show initially. I thought that would’ve been really good, the cable version of that show.
Grad: “Veep’s” great, too.
Schrier: Yeah, but we didn’t hear that one. It’s really competitive, the marketplace is extremely competitive now. The talent really is driving the train in terms of where they want to be and what the business deal is.
Grad: That’s one of the best things about just the track record of the shows you’ve done. The talent, they see the posters and they see the shows you’ve done. I think it begets more programming because I think talent says OK you guys did a really good job with these comedies, I’d like to be here.
On the drama front, it’s been a big year for “The Americans.” What do you think turned the tide for the show this year with Emmy voters.
Grad: I was shocked as anyone that in its fourth year, a show like that could break through, but the drumbeat started with the first season, and it got louder every year, and at some point with that meme of, “This is the best show on television that you’re not watching,” or, “This is the best show on television.” It gets louder and louder, and harder and harder to ignore, and then I think there was some serendipity where certain shows went away, and it had this opportunity to get in there. The word of mouth keeps growing and growing. It’s like a snowball.
Schrier: Seeing Keri (Russell) and Matthew (Rhys) get nominated was also so satisfying. I think we thought there was a possibility that the show could get nominated, but I don’t think we ever felt (they would). Those categories are so competitive, and it’s from such a wider swath, that they would get nominated — to see that happen was awesome.
(Pictured: Eric Schrier, Nick Grad)