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

Network has 13 pilots in various stages of development

Not so long ago, the prospect of an established actor accepting a role on a television series was as remote as the moons of Saturn. Backsliding from film to the boob tube was a tacit admission of defeat, one that could only lead to the purgatory that was a seat inside a garishly lit 6-foot-square window, flanked by your newfound friends and peers Dixie Carter and ALF.

Billy Bob Thornton remembers it well. “When I was coming up, we all did television initially, and that was OK,” he says, speaking from the Calgary set of Fargo, an adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 theatrical. “I’d get a bit part on Hunter or Matlock or Evening Shade, but if you were already established and you did TV, it meant the next stop was Hollywood Squares.”

While certainly in no danger of fading into the long twilight of syndicated game-show obscurity, Thornton says the changing face of the independent film marketplace has made it increasingly difficult to tell the stories he’d like to pursue as a writer and an actor. “The $20-30 million adult drama, the medium-budget independent film, is a vanishing breed,” Thornton says. “Especially an adult drama with humor, which is my wheelhouse. Television has taken the place of those films. And there’s nothing wrong with that.” 

Photo: Kevin Scanlon

The indie financing squeeze and a riveting script by novelist Noah Hawley were more than enough to get the 58-year-old Academy Award winner on board with Fargo. “When I was offered this, I jumped on it right away,” Thornton recalls. “I mean, the Coen brothers are involved, it’s based on a great movie, Noah is such a great writer … and you know, all my friends are doing [TV] now. Dennis [Quaid], Woody [Harrelson], McConaughey. The stuff they’re doing has every guy out there scrambling around looking for a great TV thing.”

If the pilot is anything to go by, the word “great” when applied to Fargo may be a matter of damning the series with faint praise. In his role as the drifting sociopath Lorne Malvo, Thornton is positively revelatory. An agent of flinty-eyed chaos, there’s a stillness about him that’s mesmerizing, and the character uses his cobra stare to effectively scuttle the best-laid plans of mice, men and every size mammal in between. He’s a malevolent Obi-Wan Kenobi, playing Jedi mind tricks on the likes of Martin Freeman and Colin Hanks.

“I have to pinch myself sometimes,” says Hawley. “My hope, when we set out to make this show, was to make a 10-hour movie, and I wanted to cast it like a movie. Billy Bob became the critical first piece because once we signed him, we sent a signal to everyone in town. Then we signed Martin, and our phones never stopped ringing.” 

FX Network president, John Landgraf | 
Photo: Karl J. Kaul/Wonderful Machine

Indeed, the roster of character actors assembled for the first flight of episodes is uncanny. Among the rogues’ gallery that will appear in at least one of the 10 episodes are Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Keith Carradine and Glenn Howerton. Joining the cast just last week, Comedy Central’s Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele will portray FBI partners looking to settle the score with Malvo after having a violent run-in with the contract killer.

Of course, because this has been the year the Snow Miser chose to reassert his dominion over the upper two-thirds of North America, the long winter shoot hasn’t exactly been an enchanted sleigh ride. “It was 15 below this morning when I left the house,” Hawley says. “It’s up to a balmy 2 degrees right now, so things are looking up.”

With shooting set to continue through April 5 and winter seemingly having decided to stay on the job until Calgary’s Bow and Elbow rivers fuse into some kind of moraine-dammed hellscape, Hawley says the actors have learned to run their lines quickly lest they attain some sort of half-assed cryogenic state.

And still, nothing can prepare an actor for the iron chill in the marrow that is an Alberta winter—especially when it’s been a while since he’s ventured north of the 49th parallel. “It was even colder on some of the days when we shot A Simple Plan 17 years ago; sometimes it went down as low as 60 below,” Thornton says. “So I thought, I can do this, I can handle it. Then I get up here and I’m, like, shit, man, I’m in my 50s. I’m cold as hell.”

Rounding Out the Slate
The thing of it is, if you’re going to pantomime tossing atrophied vampire genitalia over your shoulder in the upstairs bar at New York’s Four Seasons, the waiter with the indeterminate European accent is likely to misinterpret the gesture. In this particular case, he confuses the sudden upward motion of the arm as a summons for more olives. 

Photo: Kevin Scanlon

Given the context, the guy should be offering to bring out some garlic.

It’s a little after 4 on a mild February afternoon, and from his perch at the corner banquette, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf is dealing the dirt on the bloodsuckers who infest Manhattan in FX’s upcoming horror series, The Strain. Stealing back the vampire myth from the sparkly, pouty mopes of the Twilight Saga, the ghouls that haunt Guillermo del Toro’s prime-time nightmare are in no danger of becoming the object of ’tween crushes. (That they shed their reproductive organs is off-putting enough. You really don’t want to hear about their bathroom habits.)

A stygian stew of Old World vampire legends, viral pathogens and the sort of apocalyptic visions Hieronymus Bosch would dream up in the midst of an opium bender, The Strain will bow in July. Lost alum Carlton Cuse is the showrunner on the project, which is currently shooting in Toronto.

If The Strain seems to represent the network’s best shot at emulating a Walking Dead-size audience (del Toro’s participation alone should guarantee a big turnout when the series premieres in July), there is no mistaking it for anything but an FX show. For one thing, it’s probably the most artful vampire-based entertainment in memory; even the bloodiest acts of exsanguination are as carefully composed as a still life. “First and foremost, Guillermo’s a visual artist,” says Landgraf. “He’s particularly obsessive about the color—I mean, he’s literally going to color-time every episode of the show himself. So what you get is this almost painterly aesthetic that’s being used in the context of what is essentially a 13-hour macabre horror film.”

In town to host a screening of the Season 2 premiere of Cold War spy drama The Americans, Landgraf spends the time leading up to the event conducting an impromptu and gently meandering master class in the business of television, touching on everything from the Netflix perception-reality gap to the brave new world of life after Nielsen ratings. Through it all, FX’s development slate provides an audio-visual complement. 

 Photo: Kevin Scanlon

Along with The Strain, FX has prepped a clutch of new original series that includes the aforementioned Fargo and Tyrant, a sweeping family drama set in the Middle East that was developed by Homeland co-creators Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff. There are also a pair of idiosyncratic sitcoms in the hopper, of which the acerbic comedy of sexual manners, You’re the Worst, shares some DNA with Orange Is the New Black. (Creator and executive producer Stephen Falk serves as co-ep on the Netflix prison dramedy.)

Set to premiere this summer, You’re the Worst will be stacked with the Nat Faxon (Ben and Kate) and Judy Greer (Archer) comedy Married. Like its running mate, Married is a single-camera comedy about the war of attrition that is modern love.

All told, FX has 13 pilots in various stages of development, more than double what it ordered a year ago. And while Landgraf says he’ll go to series with two more shows before April rolls in, it’s not exactly a state secret as to which drama pilots will get the green light. “I have one more season of Justified, and I already have the replacement,” he says. Based on the novels of the late crime novelist Charles Willeford, Hoke stars Paul Giamatti as a private dick working the mean streets of a coked-out, kill-crazy Miami circa 1985. Scott Frank, who adapted Justified godfather Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight and Get Shorty for the big screen, is running herd on Hoke.

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.”