After FX announced that it would not be bringing back its freshman drama series Lights Out, fans were no doubt reminded of the situation surrounding Terriers—another smart show that boasted critical acclaim and tons of promise, yet never really seemed to find the audience it needed. As it turns out, FX president John Landgraf recognized those similarities too: “I think what we saw here was [Lights Out] was not, conceptually, something that a broad swath of the audience wanted to watch,” Landgraf said in a phone interview, echoing comments he made during the Terriers postmortem. Like Terriers, Lights Out was a consistent under-performer—showing a steep decline from its lead-in week after week, and scoring an average of around 500,000 adults aged 18-49, which is well below the network’s average of 800,000 in that demographic. (To say nothing of—according to Landgraf—Sons Of Anarchy’s 8 million and Justified’s 7 million viewers, two of the network’s high marks.)
Landgraf continued drawing that parallel between Lights Out and Terriers, saying, “I think they’re both similar in the way that you ask yourself the question of whether you really want a television show that’s very different from anything you’ve seen before—and I mean different in big ways, not small ways. You look at Terriers and you say, ‘Well, that’s a buddy cop show. I’ve seen that before.’ You get into it and you find out that it’s actually subtle and good and special and, in many ways, different from what you’ve seen before. But on its face, it looks pretty much the same. And I’d say the same could be said of Lights Out. It seems vaguely familiar if you’ve seen Rocky or The Fighter. But then you get into it and you find out it’s got richness and texture and it’s quite different. But if your fundamental point of view is ‘I don’t want to see something that I’ve seen before,’ it’s easy to dismiss both those shows on their face, because in a conceptual way, they’re not radically different than other movies and TV shows you’ve seen.”
Both Landgraf and senior vice-president of media relations John Solberg were quick to point out that—as with Terriers—the blame shouldn’t be laid on the marketing, with Solberg saying that the success of a show like Sons Of Anarchy should prove definitively that marketing is far less important than the concept. (“People want to find something to blame when a great show doesn’t work,” Solberg adds. “But it’s just bad luck.”) As to whether the experience of Terriers and Lights Out—and The Riches, Dirt, and Over There before them—would significantly affect the sort of concepts that FX would gravitate toward in the future, Landgraf demurs, “I don’t think we’re ever going to abandon our dedication to excellence and quality, literary merit—whatever you want to call it.”
However, what is clear is that FX has begun looking for bigger and flashier concepts, judging by some of the pilots that Landgraf points to—a lineup that includes Outlaw Country, an “epic family saga” about “crime and country-and-western music;” Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, about which Landgraf says you can probably “infer something from the title;” and Powers, described as a “gritty cop show that takes place in a world where superheroes exist.” Of these, Landgraf says, “They’re pretty edgy and high-concept”—something that may very well turn out to be the network’s watchword for dramas.
But while high-concepts may be the network’s short-term strategy to avoiding further frustrating single-season flameouts of otherwise well-liked shows, Landgraf remains ardently realistic: “We would like to have every show we do work, and the best we can do is to try to make them all good,” he says. “But we will never have every show we put on the air work. It will just never happen. This isn’t the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last.”
There is some good news: Landgraf avows that FX is “crushing it in comedy,” and shows like Louie, Archer, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and The League aren’t going anywhere. And of course, “Justified is also kicking ass.” So there’s that.