FX at the TCAs: Taking risks continues to yield big rewards

FX at the TCAs: Taking risks continues to yield big rewards

FX CEO John Landgraf
FX CEO John Landgraf

It’s easy to forget, until you’re sitting here frantically writing another TCA update, just how much quality content FX and FXX have under their umbrella. Yesterday, FX released major news on Louie, Fargo, and The Simpsons, which are all part of a continuing roster of hit shows that includes The Americans, Sons Of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia, The League, and Archer. More recently, FX has made a play to expand its comedies—perhaps realizing that, while it’s anchored by Louie and Sunny, the former sometimes needs to take a year off to regroup, and the latter is now heading into its 10th season. Neither Youre The Worst or Married—two snarky little half-hour shows about relationship high jinks—has premiered to universal acclaim, but both are generally thought to be fine. And this summer has also seen the debut of The Strain and Tyrant, two very ambitious (though very different) dramas.

At the network’s Monday panel, CEO John Landgraf made it explicitly clear that FX’s mission has always been to emulate prestige cable networks—specifically HBO. (FX and Showtime were aggressively trying to outbid HBO for True Detective. When they didn’t get that project, Fargo was born.) And FX is very, very good at what it does. Even when the network can’t find—or afford—what it knows will be the hit, it’s able to find something else that fits into a similar niche. As a result, the network is proudly touting 45 Emmy nominations this season. 

Sometimes chasing the tail of prestige drama leads to misfires—as has happened for both Showtime and HBO. The Strain has proven to be more pulpy than dramatic, and Tyrant hasn’t shown signs of recovering from critical pans when it first premiered. But what FX has become quite good at is finding a place in the conversation. Even with those two shows, FX has been working with the narrative to capitalize on first impressions. Rather than push away from its campiness, The Strain has embraced it.  And Tyrant’s producers are trying to get critics to believe that the show is being incisive and critical about the Middle Easts political problems, instead of just exploitative. They did so by hauling a bunch of academics and interested Muslim-Americans up to the stage to answer questions about the show. Of course, they did little but repeat the same talking points—and staved off awkward questions by taking 10-15 minutes to respond to each softball question—but the point is, it looked very good for FX. It wasn’t the most convincing panel in attendance, but the fact that it existed will look very good on paper.

FX, in fact, brought up more returning shows than any of the other networks—most of those focused on their new shows, with an occasional panel here and there for a fan favorite. FX brought up a slew of returning shows—The Bridge, Sons Of Anarchy, The League, Fargo. The strategy seems to be: Try, and then try again. As Landgraf said himself in his exec session: “We’d rather fail spectacularly and nobly than succeed in a quiet, middling way.”

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