When FX — stylized as fX to suggest effects — was first launched in 1994 it was definitely a risk. The channel was built around live programming meant to create an interactive viewing experience tapping into the early days of the Internet. It was certainly bold. It was definitely original. But it didn’t last long.
By 1997, all but one of the live programs (Personal fX) remained, and all the talent — Jeff Probst, Suzanne Whang, Phil Keoghan, and Orlando Jones, who all got their start as fX personalities — were gone. With nothing original, the channel quickly became a forgettable network filled with reruns and fading movies.
It was a far cry from what the channel started out as and the network bolstered by captivating original programming that fans know today. It wasn’t until the ‘00s that the channel found its footing, winning over critics and audiences with its bold shows, such as Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, and The Shield. All three programs turned the basic cable has-been into a major force in original cable programming. Suddenly, the network could list Glenn Close, Courteney Cox, Ted Danson, and Minnie Driver among its stars and made Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Glee) a powerhouse among TV producers.
Now in its 20th year, FX is back to taking risks — this time, splitting its comedy and dramatic programming into two sister networks (FX, FXX) and potentially splitting its audience as viewers have to switch the dial in order to now watch two of its best comedies, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League. The move was a bit of a head-scratcher at first but opened up the network for more original programming. With its current slogan, “fearless,” FX is not looking back. Instead, it utilized the typical creative drought of the summer to launch new series (The Strain), challenge HBO’s True Detective with a buzzworthy miniseries (Fargo), and give Judy Greer her first live-action series in three years (Married).
[VH1 staff picks their favorite FX series and explain why you should be watching them this fall.]
FX American Horror Story
FX The Americans
FX The Bridge
FX The Strain
FX Sons of Anarchy
[The Americans’ success is due largely to the strength of its tight-knit cast. Watch them discuss goofing off with their very own Felicity wig on set, below.]
NEXT: The proof is in the ratings.
A network that is not comfortable with being in the “sea of sameness,” as WHTC puts it, sought to develop even stronger programming. Both The Strain and Fargo were unexpected moves for a channel that was sitting comfortably with proven crime-themed hits, such as Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and The Americans. This summer, The Strain kicked things off with a controversial ad campaign that made many fans squirm. Yet, the hype worked, building buzz for an adaptation of a relatively unheard-of vampire horror comic series. The latter of the two new summer programs packed its cast with a bunch of A-List talent, including Billy Bob Thornton, who had one of the most ridiculous haircuts of any TV show. Following a similar model to American Horror Story and True Detective, the actor was contracted to appear in the first season. The question for Fargo will be: Can it match the same hype and accolades in 2015 when it returns with a new plot and a new cast?
Seemingly unfazed by what the future holds for its programs, FX has given its creators the freedom to challenge themselves. The network O.K.’d a total reboot of the hit animated series, Archer, in its fifth season. The risk surprisingly worked for both creators and fans. (The show is returning to its original concept in 2015.) And Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter has no restrictions on writing an hour-long episode or going over by an additional 40 minutes in order to tell the story he wants to tell. That kind of freedom is unheard of among many networks that want hit shows to stick with the template it’s created.
And that fearless mentality paid off for FX. Three of its brand-new shows are leading among viewers 18-49. The basic cable network is also getting critical love, with 45 nominations and several notable wins at the 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards. Fargo took home Outstanding Miniseries, an award everyone thought True Detective had locked up. (The HBO series ultimately submitted itself for Outstanding Drama Series and lost to AMC’s Breaking Bad.) In acting categories, Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates picked up awards for their roles on American Horror Story: Coven. Murphy turned out to be one of the evening’s standouts. The producer, who earned his first Emmy nomination for directing Nip/Tuck in 2004, was up for four awards himself.
And if there’s any indication things are working, it’s the ratings:
Summer’s Top New Basic Cable Original Series
1. The Strain (FX), 2.214 million (1.74 rating)
2. The Last Ship (TNT), 2.050 million (1.61 rating)
3. Real Housewives of Atlanta: Kandi’s Wedding (Bravo), 1.744 million (1.37 rating)
4. Fargo (FX), 1.521 million (1.20 rating)
5. Tyrant (FX), 1.209 million (0.95 rating)
6. Dominion (Syfy), 1.198 million (0.94 rating)
7. Black Jesus (Adult Swim), 1.196 million (0.94 rating)
8. Botched (E!), 1.141 million (0.90 rating)
9. Return to Amish (TLC), 1.094 million (0.86 rating)
10. Finding Carter (MTV), 1.065 million (0.84 rating)
As FX continues to enjoy a strong 2014, this fall has the potential to be even bigger for the channel. In October, American Horror Story — a show that singlehandedly made anthology series a ratings bonanza; see: Fargo, True Detective — returns for season four, Sons of Anarchy debuts its final season with a potential shark-jumping addition in Lea Michele, and The Bridge wraps up season two. Add that to the fact the network has picked up Zach Galifianakis’ new series, Baskets, and is bringing Billy Crystal out of retirement with The Comedians, his first major TV series since 1977’s Soap, and there are no signs of slowing down.
The real risk is not watching FX and missing out on some of the most talked about TV this season. While FX is a far cry from the fX it launched as, it still is rooted in making bold decisions and captivating TV.