AMC, HBO and Showtime, turn around, please, and meet your competition; its name is FX and it's gunning to be the most talked about network on television. Very slowly over the past few years, the Fox spinoff network has turned from being a channel dedicated to reruns of Married...with Children and Ally McBeal into a bona fide destination for quality original scripted dramas and comedies. It's been airing one of the top-rated cable series, Sons of Anarchy, along with several other huge hits including Justified and Louie. And now FX plans on expanding itself into a whole 'nother channel.
During the network upfronts last week (where the TV channels announce their intentions for the fall), FX announced it would be launching FXX, a new cable network dedicated to more comedic fare and geared toward a younger audience. The network will kick off in September and be anchored by FX's already established hits It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League. So now FX is not only going to dominate the drama market, but it is also out to give Comedy Central a run for its money.
FX's history is weird, to say the least. A spin-off of the popular Fox Network (owned by News Corp), fX (as it was called then) started in 1994 and was like an all-live-all-the-time network featuring lots of re-runs interspersed with live talk shows with a bunch of "reporters" chatting each other up about whatever they felt like or so it seemed. It was like the CW's Newsfix but not as pointless.
This format didn't last too long because it's pretty expensive to try and produce a Wayne's World-type of show all day long. So they scrapped the idea and began airing lots and lots of re-runs. To some this may sound terrible but it was actually a pretty cool iteration of the network. FX was really into playing weekend-long marathons of its current shows. (I have about four VHS tapes, still, of random FX's Beverly Hills 90210 marathons that include Christmas episodes, summer fun episodes, back-stabbing episodes and pre-menopausal Andrea episodes.)
In addition to its syndicated shows, in this time period FX picked up NASCAR, which certainly helped the network; it became a combo of Buffy repeats and car racing. This lasted for quite a few years from the tail end of the '90s through early the 2000s.
Then some genius decided they should totally try and rip off HBO's The Wire and create some original programming and The Shield was born. FX began adding more and more scripted shows and it got some serious attention. All of a sudden TV critics were collectively saying, "FX? Really?" With shows like Rescue Me, Damages, Nip/Tuck, Louie and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the little network of re-runs all of a sudden was a contender and playing with the big boys like HBO and Showtime.
And then some genius at FX said, while we are at, let's air this show about gun-running, drug-dealing, motorcycle gangs and let's see if it becomes one of the top rated programs on cable. And they were dead on. Toss in the hit show Justified, the new Russian spy show The Americans and all of a sudden FX is looking like a network that is about to knock all others out of the park.
There's something different about FX that some of the other high-rated, scripted-type networks don't get - FX doesn't take itself all that seriously, yet the critics do. Justified is about a vigilante law man, Old West style, which is something of a played-out premise, but the show has garnered huge acclaim from fans and critics. It won a Peabody Award in 2010; who knew? All of FX's dramas are smartly written, character-driven shows but they lack pretension, and I think that's what makes them successful with everyday folks. Let's face it; Mad Men likes to pat its own high-falutin back quite a bit.
Because its dramas and comedies appeal to the populist, there is something distinctly "American" about their shows and, again, I think this is a selling point for them. Not to say that HBO, AMC and Showtime's programming is not about people in the good old U.S. of A, but FX shows are about blue collar, country-loving folk. Even with all the illegal doings of the Sons of Anarchy, these bros love their little town of Charming and they are really just working guys, trying to make ends meet (through gun running). The Americans, despite being about a couple of Russian spies, is driven by the inner complexities of whether these Russians prefer the red, white and blue to their "Motherland." Dennis Leary's Rescue Me was all about the NY Fire Department with much of his character's internal struggle focusing on 9-11. It doesn't get any more American than that.
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With the introduction of FXX, the network will be able to focus more on its comedies,many of which also are about everyday folks. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the Cheers of the 21st Century, set in the working-class city of brotherly love and cheese steaks. The brilliant Louie is all about the awkwardness of the every day life of Louis CK. New programs being proposed on the network will be coming from Danny McBride of Eastbound & Down fame and a show called How & Why from Charlie Kaufman. Did you see what I just wrote: Charlie Kaufman. Charlie Kaufman.
FX also announced a slew of new dramatic shows with excellent directors and producers in tow; their Fall 2013 is gearing up to be the line up not to be missed.
Other cable networks take note, there is a new sheriff in town and it has been quietly stealing your sons and daughters for the past decade or two.