How FX Became TV’s Best, Most Reliable Network

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BY: Alan Sepinwall 09.14.16

FX

It was early in the development of The Americans that the head of FX told the show’s creator what his series was really about — and was absolutely right.

Joe Weisberg had planned to generate drama in the fake marriage between deep cover spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings on ideological grounds: Philip was beginning to feel too comfortable in America, while Elizabeth stayed true to her Mother Russian roots. Then in a meeting with FX executives, FX CEO John Landgraf proposed adding another layer to things.

“John had the idea that it would be very powerful and effective if Philip were really more in love with Elizabeth than Elizabeth were with Philip,” Weisberg said. “And you know how central that has become to the whole story of the show and the marriage. (The ideological argument) seemed like a good solid idea for what would create tension in the marriage, but it didn’t have that personal piece that we got so much out of.”

This is the sort of story you hear again and again from creators and showrunners who have worked for FX during Landgraf’s tenure, which began after the debuts of channel-defining hits The Shield and Nip/Tuck, but has covered everything from the scruffy DIY humor of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to the formal experimentation of Louie, or the machismo of Sons of Anarchy to the camp shocks of American Horror Story. Shield creator Shawn Ryan has credited Landgraf with helping make that series’ conclusion as devastating as it was because “he really pushed me to see the series as a five-act Shakespearean kind of drama and where would that go,” and Landgraf also pushed Sons creator Kurt Sutter to lean on the Shakespeare whenever possible for his Hamlet-on-motorcycles drama.

In a business where network notes are viewed somewhere on a continuum from self-parody (fueling a great Twitter account) to pure evil, Landgraf and his team have developed a reputation for giving feedback that their writers and directors not only don’t mind, but actively welcome, because the FX staff has a knack for making the shows better, whether they’re pointing out an unexplored theme in a story like Landgraf did for The Americans or reminding their creators about the core of the story they started out telling.

“It’s not always the case that you feel like the executives think as hard about the art that goes into television as they do about the business of it,” says You’re the Worst creator Stephen Falk. “It’s a network that’s operating from a place of artistic largesse and success, so even if they have to compete against $6 billion of Netflix money, the notes never feel like they’re coming from a place of fear.”

Because of that support, as well as the uncanny knack that Landgraf, FX presidents of original programming Nick Grad and Eric Schrier, and others have had of late in picking and developing the right projects, FX is on as hot a streak as any outfit in the TV business at the moment.

Netflix has the higher profile and bigger catalog of current series, but is far less consistent both across the lineup and within most individual shows. FX hasn’t been immune to failure in recent years, whether high-profile ones like Sutter’s Bastard Executioner, or more low-key like Middle East drama Tyrant, which had a troubled production history and never caught on with critics, but hung around for three seasons before being canceled last week, hours before its final episode aired. And there was that weird period where Landgraf kept trying bad multi-cam sitcoms like Anger Management and Saint George because Two and a Half Men reruns always got good ratings. But going back to 2011’s debut of American Horror Story — the show (its sixth season debuts tonight at 10) that invented the most exciting programming format in television now, the anthology miniseries, and ushered in a new era for a channel that had been a pioneer of the cable drama revolution before losing its way a bit in the late ’00s — FX’s creative batting average has been absurdly high.

American Horror Story begat other anthology shows like Fargo, last year’s Emmy-winning miniseries, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which seems likely to win huge at this Sunday’s Emmy telecast, in a year when FX got 56 nominations, a record for a basic cable channel. Five of those nominations went to The Americans, which has long been one of the very best dramas on television, and finally broke through in major awards categories in its fourth season after Landgraf kept it around despite low ratings and a prior lack of Emmy love. On the comedy side, Louie is on perpetual hiatus, but the FX empire has several spiritual successors, including Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, and Zach Galifianakis’ Baskets (the latter two produced by Louis C.K.), along with the ongoing hilarity of Always Sunny and Archer, Falk’s alternately ruthless and romantic You’re the Worst, FXX’s clever and frequently hilarious Man Seeking Woman, and more.

The Mayor of Television

Landgraf once joked to a roomful of TV critics that “I’m not the Mayor of Television” — thus inadvertently guaranteeing that this would be his nickname in the press from now until the Rapture — and even now argues that, “I’m Mayor of Television in a weak mayoral system where the city council makes all the decisions.” Where once he made decisions on which shows to keep or cancel based more heavily on the numbers, lately he’s taken to asking three questions: Do we like it? Does the audience like it? Do the critics like it? If the answer to at least two of those three is “Yes,” the show sticks around, which is good news for a man who says, “I cannot think of a more painful moment of my career than the one when I defined Terriers as a failure by canceling it.”

Though The Americans has struggled in the ratings throughout its existence, Landgraf applied that two-out-of-three rule to it early on, calling Joe Weisberg and co-showrunner Joel Fields during the first season to tell them, as Weisberg recalls, “‘Guys, I know it’s early in the run, but I want you to know we’re picking up next season right now. We want to let you know, and more importantly, we want to let the audience know to invest in this show. We believe in this show. We know it’s early, the ratings are going to bounce around. Don’t worry about the ratings, just worry about making a good show.’ We just thought, ‘What a thing!’ For us, under enormous creative pressure, to take that pressure off us… and to do it before the ratings jury was in on the show, was incredible.”

“Unlike any other president of a network, John invests more, both emotionally, and intellectually, in the writer/producer,” says DGA president Paris Barclay, who was an executive producer on Sons and Bastard Executioner,which is why I think so many people love to work at FX. He is invested in you, in almost a spiritual way, and I haven’t really seen that since Carolyn Strauss at HBO.”

Landgraf is philosophical by nature, with a more colorful way of expressing himself than your average TV executive. He’s the one who coined the phrase “Peak TV” to refer to an era where there are literally more original scripted TV series aired in a given year than there are hours to watch them all, and here he is describing what it’s like to meet with his showrunners: “There’s a kind of Kabuki theater where yes, I am a human being and Denis Leary or Ryan Murphy are human beings, but I’m also a guy wearing a suit, sitting at a chair occupying a job where I can order their show or I can cancel their show.”

(None of Murphy’s shows seems in danger of cancellation anytime soon, though FX has no comment on recent reports that they’ve opted not to order another season of Leary’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll; all the interviews for this story were conducted in early-mid August.)

Landgraf has a tight bond with many of his showrunners. Murphy’s Nip/Tuck debuted before Landgraf took over FX, and the two clashed during the early days of their partnership, to the point where they didn’t speak for several weeks; now, they’re so close that Murphy speaks to Landgraf multiple times a week, and often daily, and refers to Landgraf as a father figure.

Paris Barclay also uses paternal terms in describing the relationship between Landgraf and the mercurial Kurt Sutter.

“Kurt might disagree,” he says, “but I would say it was oddly father and son. John was the super mature, almost balanced, respectful dad that you would almost write, if you wanted to write a father. And Kurt was the son who was pushing and trying and wanting to make a difference and do things in a new and original way, and take Shakespeare but wrap it up in this biker gang in a way that was going to ruffle some feathers. John continued to go back to, ‘It has to have the quality, it has to be literature, it can’t just be TV. I don’t do just TV; it has to go deeper than that.’ And so they had a great push-me/pull-you, in an ultimately respectful, father-and-son way. But just like fathers and sons, there’s going to be times when it gets tense, but there’s also going to be times when it gets back and people really see the value in each other. That’s what I saw, and I have to say it was one of the most entertaining relationships I’ve witnessed.”

“What I find interesting about John,” says Murphy, “is that he demands a lot from his family and his friends and his colleagues at work, and everybody delivers for him. You want John to say, ‘You did good, and well-handled.'”

“When someone gives you the freedom to hang yourself or succeed, it makes you think, ‘Maybe do one extra rewrite, one extra edit,’ and that’s an incredibly valuable thing,” agrees Falk, who had to fight to get Aya Cash cast as the female lead on You’re the Worst after FX initially rejected her. He pushed to record a new audition tape for her, FX relented, and, Falk recalls, “John came up to me at one of the first upfront parties and said, ‘Thanks for standing up for what you believe, because you were absolutely right. Aya is stunning in the role.’ Not a lot of places would A) let you re-audition someone, and B) admit that you made a good case.”

When Noah Hawley began showing FX scripts from Fargo season 2, he says Landgraf told him, “I can’t really put my finger on it, but it just doesn’t feel as emotional as the first year.” Hawley kept arguing that this was by design, thanks to the retro period and bigger cast of the new season, and promised that, “By the middle and the end, you’re going to feel that Fargo feeling.” But when it came time to go into production, “We had some issues on our first episode. We had to reshoot a bunch of it, so I went from a scenario where there was concern as to whether the season was going to work in general, and then I had to show them a cut that didn’t work, because I had some director issues. But I had to show it to them to get money to reshoot. And most places, they would’ve said, ‘Well, we were right, it doesn’t work.’ And I kept saying, ‘When I get it right, it’s going to work.’ And when I got it right, it worked, and they saw that it worked, and were excited that it worked. A lot of places, you don’t have that creative leeway to find the show.”

“He is a very good listener, but does more listening than talking, which is a great way to be as a human being,” says Falk. “He has such a serene face and demeanor that it can be a little intimidating. I still feel a bit intimidated by him to this day. Sometimes, when he talks, I feel a little outmatched intellectually.”

“I remember calling him towards the end of season 2,” says Weisberg, “and just saying, ‘Do you have any thoughts on second season finales, and how they succeed and how they fail?’ It will come as no surprise to you that John was able to speak for 20 minutes about the impact of second season finales on the long-term success of shows, and what that sweet spot is, and how too satisfying of an ending feels like too much of a period, and people don’t need to come back — and yet, too much of a question mark often feels kind of like a phony cliffhanger. And about what might be right for this show. Without pitching an iota of story for us, I think helped us frame the way we were going to tell that final episode.”

And while Landgraf will at times give very specific notes — suggesting that Barclay reshoot an overcast scene in the Bastard pilot in nicer weather (which in turn gave Sutter extra time to tweak the script), or, on The People v. O.J., asking Murphy to help him better understand why the case was so personal for Johnnie Cochran (which led to the flashback of Johnnie being pulled over by a cop while his daughters are in the backseat) — more often than not his observations are macro rather than micro.

“He’ll ask me, ‘What are you trying to say with this script? What is the opportunity?'” says Murphy. “John likes bigger pictures, he likes themes. Even if something’s a period piece — like right now I’m working on Feud (another anthology series, whose first season will star Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford)— John is very careful when we’re working on scripts to make something a modern idea.”

“I think the reason I’m pretty good at giving notes is because I’m really good at reading and I’m really good at listening and trying to understand what people are trying to do and why,” suggests Landgraf. “I love these shows. I just love them. I know how they came to be and I know what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Falk recalls a moment in production of You’re the Worst season 2 when Landgraf called him out of the blue to discuss an experimental episode (focusing primarily on Gretchen and Jimmy’s neighbors) — not to complain or offer suggestions, but “Just to tell me how much he appreciated that episode, and how much those kind of moments for him when he gets cuts like that, that really feel like something new and fresh that he doesn’t see every day, it reinforces his interest in television, and his enjoyment of his job. And I don’t think a lot of executives do that.”

Those random attaboys have become part of Landgraf’s approach to dealing with his showrunners, because, “If somebody feels like I’m never paying attention to their show unless something’s wrong with it, then every time the phone rings and I’m on the other end of it, I’m just a drag.”

“I don’t really believe there’s a place on earth where they leave you alone entirely, creatively,” says Hawley. “But I’m not sure that’s the best way, anyway. It helps to have people you trust asking smart questions, and writing is an act of communication. So you need people who are not in your head to say, ‘Oh, I get it’ or ‘I don’t get it yet.'”

Bumpy transitions

The trio of The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me defined the early days of FX. Once all three were gone, the channel wasn’t entirely lost in the wilderness, since it had Sons, which remains FX’s highest-rated series (though some individual seasons of the recent Ryan Murphy anthologies have had bigger audiences, depending on what metrics you use), plus Always Sunny and the acclaimed (and occasionally Emmy-winning) Justified. But it was also a frustrating time at FX, where many new shows failed, including Over There (a Steven Bochco show about American soldiers in Iraq), Dirt (Courteney Cox runs a celebrity tabloid magazine), The Riches (Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver head a family of con artists), Terriers (RIP), and Lights Out (a very good boxing drama that, like Terriers, just didn’t catch on). Even the Glenn Close legal thriller Damages, which became an Emmy magnet, never really built an audience — or, because many of the interested parties liked to record the whole season on their DVRs and then watch at once, not in a way where FX could make money from it.

It was also a time when Landgraf and company were trying to evolve the brand beyond what still felt, as Falk puts it, “a little in your face and aggressive — a little dick-swingy.” Occasionally, this led to over-correction, like the decision to pass on the Breaking Bad pilot script — which Nick Grad recalls as “the best script we had” at the time — after it had been developed for FX, because, as Eric Schrier puts it, “Do we want to just be the white male anti-hero network? We need to try to broaden out.” (Though all acknowledge this was an enormous mistake in hindsight, Schrier also notes, “I think a huge part of that show that wasn’t there when we were looking at it was Bryan Cranston. But the script was awesome.”)

But even the loss of one of the greatest dramas ever wasn’t enough to deter Landgraf from trying to define FX as more than just a home for Vic Mackey, Tommy Gavin, and all the other descendants of Tony Soprano.

“He said, ‘I’m so done with the fucking white male anti-hero. I feel like that’s done. Let’s do something else, let’s do women, let’s do different kind of storytelling on this network,'” recalls Ryan Murphy. “It was white guys, white men, white straight men going through crises. So I love that John is not afraid to change it up. John is not afraid to ever subvert a form or do something to get to something more interesting and progressive to the audience. That’s why I love him, why a lot of people love him.”

American Horror Story, with its abundance of complicated female and/or LGBT characters, has done a lot to change the look and feel of FX, as has Landgraf’s willingness to invite other kinds of voices onto the air, including Glover and Adlon. And after FX was found to have the worst track record in television for hiring women and people of color to direct their shows, Landgraf instituted a sweeping series of changes that brought their inclusivity numbers way up.

“John decided to change the rules and rise up to the occasion of what he wanted to be as a leader and what the network could be,” says Murphy. “About five years ago, I got the sense that John planted his flag and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to change it up a little bit.’ And he really has, from the way he programs to the people that he hires, to the themes and issues that he’s interested in telling. I feel that he just got really sick of the industry being a little status quo, a little formulaic. And it was personal to him. That’s not the world he wants to live in. What I love about John is he has such a strong sense of the world that he wishes that could be, and he’s moved towards creating it. and that’s what I love about him. He’s not only changed the culture at his own company, but by doing that, he’s really changed the culture elsewhere. And that’s a very rare thing. But I felt it and I saw it, and I’m always so blessed to go along for the ride. It’s a rare man and a rare feeling.”

American Horror Story also changed things at FX, and on TV in general, with the creation of the anthology miniseries format, though that was a happy accident. Murphy initially planned to tell multiple seasons about the family in the murder house, but as he worked on early episodes, he discovered that he and the writers were burning through plot far more quickly than expected. He went to pitch Landgraf on the idea of ending the murder house arc after only a year and turning AHS into a kind of repertory company, bringing back as many actors as were interested, but playing new characters in a new setting.

“And his first reaction was, ‘Wait a minute, you want to burn down those sets that cost so much money?'” Murphy recalls. “I said, ‘I think so.’ And he paused and said — I’ll never forget it — ‘I’m really afraid of this idea, which is why I think we should do it.'”

At the same time, FX also had Louie, which never became a big hit, but won awards and pointed the way forward for many half-hour series, on FX and elsewhere (Girls, Transparent) to become more personal, more dramatic, and more experimental.

“When everyone else was jogging or steering right into the skid of dramas, saying, ‘Dramas are the be all, the end all, they’re the big prize,’ we steered into comedy and we steered into limited series,” says Landgraf. “I think we felt that there was a certain bit of lackluster derivativeness in dramas. We’re going to have about nine dramas on the air next year. Four of them are going to be limited-type dramas. I think we felt if we were going to try to find that many dramas that were standard serialized dramas, we were going to dilute the pool. That doesn’t mean to say that we don’t care about drama. We do care about it. We’re trying to figure out, ‘Okay, who’s going to move that genre forward. What are the next things that are going to be as radical in today’s world as The Sopranos or The Wire or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Shield?”

Falk, who was a student of television (and a Television Without Pity recapper) before he broke into the business, feels that even with a slate that’s bigger and more diverse on multiple levels, there’s still a consistency to the FX brand, and a way to recognize extremely different shows as part of the same outfit.

“There’s tonal variance between Sunny and American Horror Story and Louie and Atlanta and our show, but I think there’s a very subversive and hard to define similarity between all of their shows that goes beyond just the logo in the corner,” he says. “And it’s not a mandate. I think it very very much has to do with their core beliefs in empowering creative people, and helping them — not just making way for them, because I think that’s easy and not necessarily the right thing to do — helping them find the purest distillation of their voice, and protecting that voice.”

Though the kinds of shows, and the kinds of people making them, have changed somewhat, other parts of FX’s process remain largely unchanged.

“We have limited pilot resources compared to a broadcast network,” says Grad. “I still think we are not in that ‘Let’s make three things, see which one works and then we’ll pick that up.’ I think when we make a pilot, we have every intention of putting it on the air. I think we are really hard on ourselves on these decisions. We work really hard on these pilots.”

The inevitability of failure

No hot streak lasts forever, and everyone at FX is aware that their current one won’t, either.

“When we as an organization stopped, and I as an individual stopped, worrying about failure, we got better,” says Landgraf. “It’s not that I like it. It’s really hard. It’s really publicly humiliating. It’s really painful. It’s really hard when you love artists to support them and suffer through something that isn’t working the way they and you want. I don’t worry about it anymore because I feel like it’s inevitable. Then we went through the organization. We’ve just gone through it and become really honest.”

“We’re going to fail,” acknowledges Schrier. “We failed with Bastard Executioner. Not all of our comedies work; Married didn’t work. They’re not all going to work and I think you need to have humility that it’s all not going to work. Networks pick up shows for subsequent seasons before they’ve even aired. You don’t see us doing that, right?”

There are still plenty of areas for improvement. While the launch of spin-off channel FXX (which is home to younger-skewing comedies like Always Sunny, You’re the Worst, and Man Seeking Woman) has mostly worked out, an early casualty was FX transplant Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, which was too young to handle the shift to another network, as well as the expansion from weekly to nightly. It was FX’s latest unsuccessful attempt to launch a talk show.

“It’s frustrating to me that 12 years I’ve been at the channel, we’ve never been able to crack that nut,” Landgraf admits. “I wish we had Samantha Bee.”

At times, ironically, failure makes Landgraf more confident in future success. He says that Kurt Sutter’s insistence on bringing the modestly-rated Bastard to a close after only a season, rather than cash in some Sons of Anarchy chips to convince Landgraf to keep it going, “spoke volumes of his maturation as a storyteller and creator,” and gave Landgraf greater faith that Sutter’s next show will be a hit.

“I think the best analogy for what I do is a coach or a general manager of a sports team,” says Landgraf. “My job is player recruitment, player coaching, player management, managing the team of people that manage the players. That turns out to be a job that’s about honestly, that’s about listening, that’s about frankness, that’s about openness, vulnerability, transparency. I just think I as a person and we as an organization have gotten better at that.

“Does that mean we won’t fail?” he adds. “No, we will fail continuously. It just means that we’re a little bit better at succeeding than we were, and a little less likely to fail than we were eight years ago or 10 years ago when I was just getting started and we were just getting started and learning our way.”

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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