Eight years ago, heading into 2010, FX was riding on the backs of its male-driven dramas and lone comedy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. With the success of the network's "bro" characters, FX doubled down with new dramas Sons of Anarchy and Lights Out, along with comedy/drama/thriller Terriers and comedies Wilfred and Brand X with Russell Brand. However, as it began to face stiff competition from other growing cable channels -- with shows like Breaking Bad -- and declining viewership, the network had to reimagine its programming and bring a fresh voice to television before it faded into the sea of similarity.
FX remains one of the few television networks that have avoided the slippery slope of stale and repetitive programming through two decades of rebranding and rewriting the rules of cable. The inception of the 20th Century Fox network in the early '90s saw primarily reruns until its original programming in the early '00s produced three hit series: The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me.
Even in the channel's early years, it pushed boundaries and featured mature content not normally seen on cable television. Despite positively reviewed series and award nominations across the board, the network's focus on drama over comedy started to shine FX in a familiar light.
Part of the reason could be due to the poor reception the network received the few times FX ventured into comedy. Only one comedy series gave FX hope it could venture back into comedies later down the road: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Premiering in 2005, the comedy following a group of politically incorrect underachievers who own a bar in Philadelphia garnered wide critical praise and drew in a large fan following early on. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has solidified itself as one of the longest running comedies still on television, currently renewed through its fourteenth season.
But as the comedy continued to hit record viewership numbers, the network's attempts into deeper dramas wound up with a short shelf life. Two of FX's newly premiered dramas only lasted two seasons before getting the axe, while a third, (Damages) lasted three before being transferred to DirecTV's Audience Network.
As the new decade came around, FX started to face off against fellow cable network, AMC, who was at the time taking off thanks to hit dramas Breaking Bad and Mad Men, which had entered its third and fourth seasons, respectively. Looking at these quality shows that ran for shorter seasons and focused on stories not previously told on television, the cable network knew they were going to have to look into new programming that told a different kind of story.
Though most of the shows only lasted their debut season, FX did find a few hits with three new comedies that would put them on the map for the genre: Louie, The League and #Archer. All three series garnered wide critical acclaim and have run for more than five seasons, with #TheLeague ending after seven seasons and Archer set to end after its tenth season, a decision driven by its creator Adam Reed.
#Louie is the most fascinating and important of the three comedies, as it was not only one of FX's highly-rated series at the time, but it also ushered in the network's decision to give more control of its shows over to their creators. While most new shows tend to have a bigger budget for the first season to try and get off the ground, creator Louis C.K. asked FX to give him complete creative control over his series. The network agreed, giving him $200,000 to shoot the pilot without hearing a pitch, seeing a cast, or showing any footage.
This was unheard of at the time and was seen as a great leap of faith from the cable network. Even the president of FX, John Landgraf, told C.K. he had no notes to give him, instead just telling him what people liked from its testing and what they didn't, according to an interview C.K. gave to the New York Times. Rather than trying to control their product and manage changes to the series, FX left it all in C.K.'s hands, who not only stars in the series, but is also its lone writer, director and the only editor for the series over the first two seasons.
This deal has helped the series last five seasons, and potentially longer, as the show is currently on an extended hiatus with no signs of returning, but has not been officially ended either. C.K.'s return to his beloved series has been up in the air since the finale of its fifth season, with the star stating in an interview with Howard Stern he doesn't want to close the door on the series, but also doesn't want to be obligated to the network to come up with a sixth season.
FX's deal with C.K. not only opened the door for the network to provide greater creative control to the minds behind its shows, but also opened up the network's search for more premium shows to debut in both the comedy and drama genres.
One prime example is the network's first foray into the horror genre with the acclaimed anthology series, #AmericanHorrorStory, which has had an impressive six-season run and has been renewed through season nine, with a seventh season set to premiere on September 5th. Though its fifth season received generally mixed reviews from both fans and audiences, the series as a whole has received rave reviews from critics and audiences, with praise primarily aimed at the seasons' loosely connected storylines, overall atmosphere, and performances from the ensemble casts.
Ryan Murphy, who's given Fox and FX hit shows in the past with Nip/Tuck and Glee, delivers each season of AHS with a new slew of characters dealing with some form of horror in various areas of America, ranging from a haunted house in Los Angeles to a coven of witches in New Orleans to the missing colony of Roanoke in modern-day North Carolina, with ties made between characters through crossovers and dialogue as the show has grown.
Murphy's freedom to develop his vision on screen and create the world of AHS has also helped breathe new live into the anthology genre for television, with other acclaimed shows including True Detective and American Crime following suit shortly after.
Two years after the debut of AHS, the cable network premiered its second major venture into premium television following Louie with the Cold War era drama The Americans, which follows married KGB spies posing as an American family while also raising two kids in America who are unaware of their true identities. Every season has garnered critical acclaim and multiple award nominations thanks to the performances from its leads, the tense plot lines each season, and the attention to detail for the time period.
Over the years, every new show debuting on the network has pushed the envelope as far as it can to tell stories not normally told. The comedy You're the Worst portrays depression in full view over the course of multiple episodes in multiple seasons, #Fargo brings the Coen Brothers' classic to life on television without simply recreating the original story, and Legion proves a comic book adaptation can be so much more by focusing on an unreliable narrator.
One of the biggest risks the channel took that proved to be a huge leap forward was in Murphy's second anthology series, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, in which an angered Marcia Clark utters an uncensored "motherf***er" at the end of the third episode in the season. Technically, this was not the first uncensored iteration of the word on an FX show, as Louie beat them to it, however it did usher in the network's decision to permit the usage on more of its shows.
Rather than a means to an end for the shows and their dialogue, Landgraf sees it as a way of "supporting artistic integrity" and that for the episode, "letting the word fly was the way to do that."
I don’t think we’re going to use ‘f*ck’ or ‘motherf*cker’ as a noun, adjective, verb, and everything in between. But when it’s important, it’s important. In this particular instance, it was kind of the valedictory line of Sarah Paulson playing Marcia Clark at the end of the episode.
Murphy followed with a few more drops of the word in the remaining episodes of the season, which showed that the cable network had no plans of backing down from their allowance of its utterance as long as they felt it fit with the programming. Interestingly enough, Landgraf said in his interview with Slate that the channel had no interest in overusing the term, even saying that this usage would not open the floodgates for future shows to use them at will, and yet we are seeing more and more shows use the word freely on the network.
However, rather than have them on shows one would expect to hear them in every other second, the network has worked hard to allow their newer series to use them as they see fit, with the most recent drama debut Snowfall using the term quite frequently per episode to help capture the tone of the time and personalities of their characters during their conflicts in the blossoming crack enterprise.
FX recently broke ground again with the debut of its hit comedy #Atlanta this past September, as not only did much of the creative control lie in the hands of its creator/star Donald Glover, but the production on the first season — which only consisted of 10 episodes — took over three years to finish between Glover's busy schedule with #Community, a handful of film roles, and touring under his musical persona, Childish Gambino.
The extended production time FX allotted the show turned out to be the biggest asset, as the series was so masterfully crafted it garnered a rare 100% "Certified Fresh" rating on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Many critics praised the extensive details put into the characters and production designs, Glover's careful balance of eccentric comedy and timely themes, as well as the performances from its cast, especially Glover. The freshman comedy also won two Golden Globes for best series and best actor in the musical/comedy genre, and has been nominated for five Emmys, including outstanding series and outstanding lead actor in the comedy genre.
Atlanta premiered at the same time as another new comedy series that took advantage of an extended production time and came back to the network with a sitcom that had a familiar premise and broke every rule the genre had: Better Things. Co-created by C.K. and frequent collaborator/friend Pamela Adlon, the series follows divorced actress Sam Fox as she works to balance her professional life and raising her three daughters on her own.
Adlon takes a very different approach to the typical single mom sitcom genre by breaking many of the traditions associated with it and taking a similar auteuristic approach new comedy Atlanta and longer-running Louie have taken in its vignetted, close-ended episodes. In choosing to trust Adlon with her work, alongside C.K., FX was once again delivered with another series adored by critics and audiences right away, with a 94% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes that helped earn it a second season renewal within two weeks of its debut.
Even with the quick renewals for both Atlanta and Better Things, the cable network still gave the creators the freedom to take as much time as they needed to craft their vision for the second seasons. Despite taking on the bigger role of directing all ten episodes of the second season and co-writing and executive producing it with C.K., Adlon was able to mold her follow-up installment in time for a September premiere date, ironically only a week after the series premiere last year.
Atlanta, however, is currently taking a longer production schedule to deliver another masterpiece, as Glover's schedule has only become more packed since the premiere of his show. He has since signed on to star as a younger version of Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo film currently helmed by Ron Howard, as well as filming a supporting role in the latest solo Marvel outing Spider-Man: Homecoming, starring in Jon Favreau's live-action remake of Disney's The Lion King as Simba AND creating/writing/executive producing an animated Deadpool series for FX alongside his brother Steven. Due to this schedule pile-up, the return to the capital of Georgia for the actor has been delayed to an unknown time in 2018, but that's the best outcome for fans of the show.
Though a potential two year wait is a struggle for any true fan of a show (especially a major hit like Atlanta), this gives Glover time to figure out where to take the show in its second season and once again use careful detail to craft the show as he did to earn the acclaim for its freshman season. Glover has proven with his stand-up comedy, his music and TV roles that if he puts the time and effort in, he will come out victorious. FX has acknowledged the deserved attention and given him as much time and freedom as he needs to develop more success for them.
The same can be found in FX's long-running history with creator #RyanMurphy, who has not only created four shows for FX, but also has one upcoming with the cable network, as well as three for its parent company Fox, two already concluded (Glee, Scream Queens) and one upcoming series (9-1-1). His ability to discover how to tell these bold stories in fresh ways have earned him widespread fame amongst fans and the board members of the network, who have already renewed Feud for a second season set to premiere in 2018. Murphy has also earned an unofficial three-season renewal for American Crime Story.
In its 23-year life span, FX has helped break new ground in not only how we watch television, but how we absorb it and help shape the culture and world around us. Atlanta is not just a bizarre comedy, but also a way to spread messages of police abuse on both regular civilians and the mentally ill that they're not prepared to handle. American Crime Story may not get every factual detail correct, but it brings the important stories of the O.J. Simpson trial and the assassination of fashion mogul Gianni Versace (upcoming season) to light through a mostly truthful lens. Better Things shows audiences that single motherhood is more complicated to handle than a show like CBS' Mom depicts.
They've broken new grounds in censorship levels, revitalized genres long thought dead or impossible for television, and helped remind networks that giving creators the freedom to craft their shows is not only a good thing, but also a wise investment later down the road.
What are your favorite shows to watch on FX? Which upcoming season are you most looking forward to from the network? Let us know in the comments below!