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March 31, 2015

American Success Story

Thanks to singular visions, the only thing “basic” about FX these days is its carriage status.

Graham Flashner
  • John Landgraf

  • Angela Bassett

  • Billy Crystal

  • Charlie Day

  • Danny DeVito

  • Denis Leary

  • Glen Howerton

  • Joelle Carter

  • John Corbett

  • Josh Gad

  • Kaitlin Olson

  • Kathy Bates

  • Keri Russell

  • Louis CK

  • Matthew Rhys

  • Noah Emerich

  • Pam Adlon

  • Rob McElhenney

  • Sarah Paulson

  • Timothy Olyphant

How many networks could legitimately use "Fearless" as a branding statement?

The word implies a willingness to take great risks, to challenge and provoke viewers. In an industry where playing it safe is the norm, it's almost impossible to deliver on that kind of promise.

But the FX network — where charlatans, pimps, bikers and spies have all run free — has never played it safe. Twenty-one years after its humble beginnings in a Manhattan apartment, FX is a Hollywood powerhouse, home to some of the most daring and innovative shows on television. "They take risks, and with risk comes great reward," says executive producer Ryan Murphy

"They swing for the fences — sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. But when they land, it really reverberates."

Popular with critics and viewers, FX shows have nabbed 27 Emmys and another 163 nominations. Last year, in its first season, Fargo — a limited series inspired by the Coen brothers' 1996 film — earned 18 Emmy noms and took the award for outstanding miniseries.

Meanwhile, an average of 1.46 million viewers tune in to FX nightly — and the darker the show, the more they like it. The network's most popular series, Sons of Anarchy, was an operatically violent take on a motorcycle gang. The depravity-soaked fourth-season premiere of the American Horror Story anthology, Freak Show, delivered the highest ratings in FX's history.

"They were the first basic cabler to appropriate what made HBO such a game-changer," says Mary McNamara, television critic for the Los Angeles Times.

"They do risky, hard, R-rated, out-there shows. Even the comedies are out there — very graphic, very adult. You don't bring the kids to FX."

The channel's shows are not for the faint of heart, but — according to John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions — the viewers who seek them out are willing to leave their comfort zones. That goes to the heart of the "Fearless" mandate.

"Our aspirations are not to be safe or conventional or predictable," Landgraf says. "People who watch this channel want to be surprised. The alternative to being put off is never being surprised."

Landgraf has been guiding creative at FX since 2004. He'd previously co-founded Jersey Television, following half a decade as vice-president of primetime series at NBC.

At FX, series development has increased five-fold under his watch. Determined to avoid the network-style micro-management that he believes dilutes the creative process, he's drawn raves for his writer-friendly, hands-off approach.

"Mostly, writers need to feel supported and protected," Landgraf says, likening the role of his creative team to that of a coach. "Unless they can hear that I understand what they're trying to do, why the hell should they listen to me?"

"They're always trying to find something that's a little bit new, and it always comes back to character," says Justified creator-executive producer Graham Yost.

He's also an executive producer on The Americans, of which he says: "It's a spy show, but in typical FX fashion, it's a show about married KGB operatives. They're the bad guys, and yet they're the center of the show. [Landgraf] kept asking questions about the marriage. He had an idea that one of them is more into the marriage than the other. It gave Joe [Weisberg, the show's creator and an executive producer] a place to go for the next season."

If there's a formula for FX shows, it's this: intricate plots, flawed characters, genres turned on their heads and authentic worlds where the darkest depths of human nature are revealed.

These shows reflect the singular visions of creators given free rein to succeed — or fail — on their own terms. And that, more than anything, may be the key to the network's success.

"Their best shows are the result of a writer saying, 'Here's a story I have to tell, but I doubt anyone will let me tell it,'" says Shawn Ryan, creator-executive producer of The Shield. "Lo and behold, here comes FX to let you tell it."

"They bet on the people they believe in," says Rob McElhenney, the creator, an executive producer and a star of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. "They've cultivated an environment that seeks out talented people, and they give them a green light to do whatever they want."

Says Landgraf: "Really talented people have a lot of options for where they work. They don't have to adapt to us — our job is to adapt to them."

This seemed highly unlikely back on June 1,1994, when FX debuted as fX, the fledgling cable network of parent company 20th Century Fox.

Operating out of a large apartment in Manhattan's Flatiron district, it aired a mixed bag of live talk shows, pet shows, reruns of popular Fox series and some forgettable originals,

In the early '00s, HBO was the undisputed king of groundbreaking television. It was the heyday of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and The Wire was just over the horizon.

Beholden only to paid subscribers, HBO had no competition when it came to content that pushed the boundaries of sex, violence and language.

Over at FX Networks, president Peter Liguori — a former HBO marketing exec who'd become president of FX in 1998 — was driven by what most saw as a pipe dream: to duplicate the success of HBO, but on a basic-cable channel.

"At that point, the business model of FX was flawed, because there was nothing in primetime," he told journalist Jason Matloff in 2002. "The only scripted series we had was Howard Stern's Son of the Beach, and his goal was not necessarily quality."

Liguori hired Kevin Reilly (now president of TNT and TBS) to run the entertainment division. Eric Schrier, who'd been working with Reilly at Brillstein-Grey, followed him to FX as his assistant.

Schrier has since risen to co-president of original programming for FX and FX Networks, but the jump was not considered a viable career move at the time. Shortly after his arrival, a prominent agent rang him up. "He said, 'When you're ready to get back in the business, give me a call,'" Schrier recalls, laughing.

Liguori was committed to getting an original scripted drama on the air, so the network ordered two pilots: Dope, a Traffic-esque drama about the LA. drug trade (starring Jason Priestley), and The Barn, a gritty cop show that became The Shield.

It was written by a then-unknown Shawn Ryan, who'd been engrossed by the corruption scandal at the LAPD's Rampart division in the late 1990s and was looking to reinvigorate a genre he felt had gone stagnant.

"I had spent three years as a writer on [CBS's] Nash Bridges, which was a very old-fashioned 'hero cop' story," Ryan says. "The lead had to be impeccable in every way professionally, he had to get the bad guy at the end of every episode, he did everything by the book. I was trying to write one script that would be the antidote to all that."

Of the two shows, Dope had the inside track, As Schrier says, "From a marketing standpoint, it was a much sexier sell. The sense was, if we're going to make a lot of noise, we'll do it with Dope. But then The Shield pilot came in, and the execution was fantastic, and Michael Chiklis was unlike any other cop you'd seen on TV."

FX had so little currency at the time, Chiklis's agent didn't even want him to read for the role of detective Vic Mackey. Even after Chiklis prevailed, he had few illusions about the show's prospects,

"My expectation was that I would have a great piece of tape to be able to show people in the community when I was up for other roles," he says.

Instead, The Shield blew up all expectations, debuting on March 12, 2002, to a then-record basic cable audience of 4.8 million. But the accolades were just beginning.

Chiklis became the first star of a basic-cable series to win the Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama.

The coup de grace came at the Golden Globes, when he duplicated his win and The Shield edged out The Sopranos for best dramatic television series. Recalls Schrier: "We never dreamed of winning awards. All we were hoping was that people would watch the show."

The Shield ran for seven seasons and is widely recognized as one of the best dramas in TV history. It put FX on the map and forever altered the basic-cable landscape, proving that an ad-supported network could go head-to-head with premium channels in producing sophisticated, edgy, adult programming.

The FX playbook would eventually be adapted by cable channels like AMC, TNT and USA, as well as by Netflix and Amazon — all competing to win viewers with original scripted programming.

Proving it wasn’t a one trick pony, FX followed The Shield with the outrageous medical satire Nip/Tuck and Denis Leary's post-9/11 firefighter show Rescue Me, which artfully blended emotional drama and wry comedy in a way seldom seen on television at that time.

The latter series was Leary's introduction to John Landgraf, who had taken over for the departed Kevin Reilly. Leary remembers their first story meeting vividly: "I had done a ton of movies; Peter Liguori had done Larry Sanders at HBO.

But this was the first time ever a guy gave us two or three notes off the pilot, and each one, we thought, 'Wow, why didn't we think of that?'"

With three hit shows on the air, it seemed Landgraf had slid into the cushiest job in television. Even so, he remembers a moment of foreboding: "I'm the schmuck that has to try and replace The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. What have I done?

At the debut of The Shield, FX was the only basic-cable channel buying original scripted programming — it would be another five years before AMC became a major player with Mad Men.

Much as Fox Broadcasting Company had crashed the Big Three in 1986, upstart FX was rewriting the rules of how a basic-cable channel could operate.

"We had an incredibly strong opinion about what we wanted to do, and in most cases it differed from the rest of the market," Landgraf says.

"Broadcast networks had to be broad and populist. Populism at that time was defined as unobjectionable, safe, peppy, bright — not the dark, edgy, idiosyncratic stuff. We rejected that from the beginning.

"We wanted to give people a reason to seek out our channel by putting things on the air that were not only great, but were very different from what others might put on the air. And we were willing to take big risks — and willing to fail — to achieve that."

Probably no show better epitomized that philosophy than the quirky dark comedy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which survived a rocky start to become the network's most endearing (and enduring) series. In so doing, it also fulfilled one of Landgraf's top priorities: to launch FX as a comedy destination.

As a former producer of Reno 911! — Comedy Central's low-budget Cops spoof — Landgraf knew how to make comedies inexpensively; he just needed a unique concept.

It arrived in the form of a 26-minute video starring creator Rob McElhenney and his actor pals Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton. It was like nothing Landgraf had ever seen.

"Rob wanted to make the darkest sitcom ever," Landgraf recalls, "one that did everything in the opposite way of a traditional sitcom. He wanted to make a show about a bunch of unrepentant jerks and narcissists who live a kind of scummy, low-grade life."

McElhenney concurs: "I wanted to make the characters as deplorable as could be and see how many fans would stay with us."

Landgraf gave McElhenney S400,000 to re-shoot the pilot, a quarter of what an average network sitcom could cost. The financial risk was low enough that FX could absorb the hit if the show failed.

"FX said, 'We want to give you a shot — we don't have a ton to spend — but we can give you creative and financial ownership down the line, so that if it's a great success, everyone profits,'" McElhenney says. "Because it was so cheap, they were able to keep it on the air when it wasn't doing well."

The cast worked for so little that first season that McElhenney kept his night job waiting tables. Ratings stayed low for the first three years, but once fans caught on, they embraced it in droves.

After season five, Sunny was a bona-fide hit. Landgraf applied a similar strategy to a succession of offbeat comedies like Wilfred, The League, the animated spy satire Archer and the Emmy-winning Louie, starring comedian Louis C.K.

"In comedy," Landgraf notes, "we had gone from being a pretender to a contender."

So successful has comedy been for FX that in September 2013, it launched FXX, a comedy-driven sibling featuring six comedies that launched on FX, plus movies and acquired series like Anger Management and Two and a Half Men.

FXX targets the coveted 18-to-34 demographic, while FX aims for 18 to 49s. FXM, the revamped Fox Movie Channel, rounds out the FX cable empire with a focus on viewers 25 to 54.

Like any TV exec, Landgraf has had his share of misses.

Comedies like Lucky and Starved, and dramas like Over There (created by Steven Bochco), The Riches, Dirt, Lights Out and the critically acclaimed Terriers (created by Shawn Ryan) failed to catch on.

As he'd promised, the network was not shy about taking risks. But in those early days, the community remained skeptical.

"People don't realize we had tons of nay-sayers when we started," Landgraf recalls. "They thought we were eccentric and kind of crazy. The prevailing wisdom was, basic cable can't afford to foster shows like network or premium [channels do].

"One network was very arrogant; they were like, 'What are these idiots doing?' Now they're throwing in the towel, realizing we kicked their ass, and they're coming in our direction."

FX’s recent track record backs up that bravado. Beginning in 2008, FX complemented its growing comedy brand with a seminal wave of dramas that, over the next six years, more than maintained the bar set by The Shield.

For starters, there were Sons of Anarchy, The Americans, and the Southern Gothic-flavored Justified, which accomplished something no network had managed — to successfully adapt famed crime writer Elmore Leonard to the small screen. (The show is based on the crime novelist's short story "Fire in the Hole.") Says Landgraf: "It was the TV show I'd been waiting for my whole career."

"Justified was a bit of a changeup for FX, because Raylan [Timothy Olyphant] is a hero, very unlike the antiheroes in The Shield or Rescue Me," says creator Graham Yost.

"Raylan's not shooting his partner in the face or beating up his wife. Still, FX gets the show better than anyone."

Then there's the supernatural-themed American Horror Story, which pioneered a new twist on a format that hadn't been commercially successful in decades: the anthology.

"Nobody could figure out how to do it the way it had been done before," Landgraf says. "On an episodic basis, where you had an impresario like Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling as the common thread that helped tie it together."

AHS exec producer Ryan Murphy, who created the show with Brad Falchuk, found a solution: the story would change, not by episode, but by season (in 2014 it was revealed that the various seasons would somehow all tie together).

"Every year, it has to reinvent itself," Murphy says. "We have to come up with a new cast of characters, new setting, new legend, new vernacular. That's what makes it so creative — you never get stale or tired."

And because the actors only have to commit to a one-year deal (though many return for more), the show has been able to lure a formidable ensemble cast. Freak Show stars Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates and Michael Chiklis; Lady Gaga has been announced for AHS season five.

"The fact that we get to come back year after year and they fashion some completely new insanity for us to play out is a plus," Bassett says. "It's thrilling."

"Think about the rarity of a new invention in TV formats," Landgraf marvels. "It happens periodically — it's a rare and wonderful thing when it does."

No longer content to see fx described as the "HBO network basic cable," Landgraf believes his network has carved out its own brand.

"We've taken this little basic-cable network that was not even in the original programming business 12 years ago, and we've built a juggernaut," he says.

"We've only made three drama pilots in the 11 years I've been here that haven't gone to series.... I think we bat more than .500 in terms of going to series and having [a show] stay on the air for its entire lifespan. I know now that we will always have compelling comedies, dramas and miniseries on the air."

Even as rivals multiply for the territory that FX helped define, Landgraf has set his sights on a single rival.

At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, he pointed out that FX accounted for 213 mentions on 115 year-end best-of lists compiled by critics — second only to HBO's 250. AMC came in third with 67.

"The race for the best in TV is really only a competition between two channels," Landgraf told the TCA audience. "The rest of the pack is way behind."

Photos by Steve Schofield

Watch the Cover shoot for American Horror Story HERE

Watch the cover shoot for Justified HERE

Watch the cover shoot for The Americans HERE

Watch the cover shoot for The Comedians HERE

Watch the cover shoot for Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll HERE

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