FX Is the Edgiest and Most Prolific Drama Producer on Ad-Supported TV

Network has 13 pilots in various stages of development

Landgraf, as it turns out, just got in from Miami the night before where he sat in on the filming of the pilot. “Hoke just seemed like a good idea since adapting darkly comedic crime fiction à la Elmore Leonard is what Scott does best,” Landgraf says. “And it turned out that he loved Willeford’s books. So he wrote a draft, and we picked it up.” 

Photo: Kevin Scanlon

Meanwhile, FX’s highest-rated series, Sons of Anarchy, is also gearing up for its last lap. But as is the case with Justified, Landgraf has already found a replacement for the outlaw motorcycle club in SoA showrunner Kurt Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner. An exploration of the collision between paganism and the Catholic Church in 14th century England, Bastard is based on an idea from producer Brian Grazer. If that log line sounds a little stuffy, recall that Sutter is the man who relentlessly brutalized poor Otto Delaney on Sons, blinding him, biting out his tongue and eventually sending him out in a hail of bullets—and he played the guy. (Landgraf allows that “there will be sword fighting, of course.”)

While the addition of FXX to the lineup has necessitated the steroidal swelling in Landgraf’s development slate, the increase in production hasn’t come at the expense of the qualitative imperative. This has much to do with the premium Landgraf and his three lieutenants (Nick Grad, Eric Schrier and Chuck Saftler) place on great writing.

“I never wanted the tail to wag the dog,” Landgraf says. “It always comes back to the same principle, which is, how to make the business serve the creative rather than having to force the creative to serve the business, which is an arrangement that almost always ends in mediocrity. No matter what else is going on, I’ve always wanted to make it about that, about good writing and all the things that come with it: good filmmaking, good directing, good acting.

“This is a medium that is capable of supporting extraordinary excellence, but if you don’t start with good material, you have no chance,” he continues. “You can still fuck it up, even with good material, but aside from maybe Casablanca, I can’t think of a good film that was made without a script. It all starts with the writing.”

A Creative Haven
Carlton Cuse speaks for many of those in TV’s creative caste when he enumerates the advantages of working on an FX project. “Not only are they respectful to the material, they actually contribute good ideas, notes that are antithetical to the sort of network interference showrunners usually have to endure,” Cuse says. “John and his team really have an evolved attitude toward the creative process, and it’s absolutely no accident that FX has such a broad array of really interesting shows—shows that haven’t had all the interesting edges sanded off them, which is the normal run of things on TV.” 

Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

Others who have worked on flagship FX properties like Justified and The Americans talk about the network’s “fearless” attitude toward developing shows for an audience that has grown weary of broadcast procedurals and melodramas. And while the cable landscape is littered with the husks of noble failures, FX’s promotional efforts give even its most challenging material the best shot at finding an audience.

Tyrant is going to need all the promotional muscle FX can muster. American attitudes toward the Middle East can be less than enlightened (geopolitics is a sticky wicket), and shows set outside our own borders generally do not translate. 

Photo: Michael Gibson/FX

“If any part of the trailer looks like the kind of news footage you’re going to see on CNN, we’re done,” Landgraf says, recounting a conversation he had with Tyrant showrunner Howard Gordon and director David Yates. “The marketing images have to make you see the seductive glamour of the Middle East. You basically have to do for a new generation what Lawrence of Arabia did. And if you don’t give me the right pictures, the right images, I have no chance of succeeding.”

Gordon says if you discount viewers on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, the immediacy of Tyrant’s narrative (the show is set in a fictional country of Baladi, which is in the grips of an Arab Spring) is married to a broader family saga. “People are sincerely curious and interested and concerned and compelled by that part of the world,” Gordon says. “Three-quarters of the ink in The New York Times has to do with some aspect of the seismic shift that’s happening in Egypt, in Syria, in Libya. It really is the story of our times … and there’s an American family that’s been reintegrated into the unfolding narrative.”

While the pilot is politically neutral and has tested well, that’s not to say that Tyrant won’t attract a disproportionate share of enmity from the shouting heads on the cable news networks. Bring it on, says Gordon. “I’ve been called an Islamaphobe, an apologist and an advocate for torture,” he laughs. “As long as both sides are provoked, I’m fine. I’ve developed a thick skin.”

Tyrant bows in late June, but a more pressing deadline looms with Fargo’s April 15 launch date. Landgraf has little doubt it’ll make a splash Tuesdays at 10 p.m. “It’s a stunningly, poetically beautiful crime story and human story,” he says. “It’s crazy how good it is, how surprising it is from beginning to end.”

Perhaps the only element of Fargo that is wanting is Billy Bob Thornton’s haircut, which his own manager said made him look as if he were channeling the dark side of Ken Burns. “Between this haircut and the turtleneck, I look like I’m in the fuckin’ Buffalo Springfield!” Thornton laughs. “But when it’s juxtaposed with the expressions Malvo makes, which are few and far between, the end result is nice and sinister.”

As for ratings expectations, Landgraf says that’s an element that is becoming less engrossing to him with every passing day. “Look, I certainly care whether people watch it on the linear channel, but I don’t care that much,” he says. “I’m trying to structure the business so that we own the shows, we own the back end, and there’s value for us no matter when somebody watches the show.

“I mean, I’m really optimistic about all this stuff right now, but I can guarantee you we won’t bat a thousand. Nobody does. Something will fall by the wayside. But you have to metabolize failure. It’s the only way you can learn from your mistakes and get better.”

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