FX President on Justified, Channeling Elmore Leonard and Passing on Breaking Bad
FX president and general manager John Landgraf came to the network in 2004 when the channel's scripted offerings were limited to Nip/Tuck and The Shield. Since then, he's built a stable of hits, from the recently departed Rescue Me to ratings monster Sons of Anarchy to the critically beloved Justified. Landgraf talked to TV Guide Magazine about doing Elmore Leonard justice, bucking the antihero trend — and why he didn't pick up Breaking Bad.
TV Guide Magazine: At the Television Critics Association press tour, you talked about the cornerstones of FX initially being The Shield, Rescue Me, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Nip/Tuck. What void did Justified fill?
John Landgraf: I guess I would describe our brand in various different ways, but one way is populist literature, the combination of broadly entertaining television shows that often actually take on a genre. You know, The Shield was a police procedural, Nip/Tuck was a medical drama, The Americans is an espionage thriller. And I look at Justified as kind of a modern western.
But the literature part is a really distinctive, character-based, humanistic voice. Sort of the aspiration to write with a kind of depth and language that feels very real. And I think that's true in both ways with Justified. [Executive producer] Graham Yost and his collaborators get Elmore Leonard's voice right, and it's very hard to get essentially 13 hours of new original Elmore Leonard a year. And they really get the voice of the South right. The writers have spent a fair amount of time down there, so there's a musicality to the language, there's a depth to the characters.
I think that Justified does a masterful job of deconstructing Raylan Givens' character and, by extension, the iconic white-hat lawman who has been a part of American film and television for generations, all the way back to Gary Cooper and through John Wayne. What's fascinating to me about the show is that, the implication of the title is that we have a very angry man, who comes from a very angry background, who has found a socially acceptable — i.e. justifiable — way to do what he really wants to do, which is kill people. And from the very beginning he has a crisis of faith surrounding that. I think it's fascinating; we'd never really examined deeply the motivations of that white-hatted hero. We just knew that he was good, they were bad, and therefore we could feel unabashedly satisfied that good triumphed over evil. This is a little bit more subtle. So on one level you can just eat it like candy or popcorn, but on the other hand, you can experience it as a really good book.
TV Guide Magazine: I hadn't read any Elmore Leonard before starting to watch Justified, but I finally got around to it this Christmas. Elmore Leonard said they really nailed his tone, but I didn't realize until now how true that is.
Landgraf: It really is. You know, I developed a really quite-good show called Karen Sisco that was based on the character that Jennifer Lopez played in Out of Sight and was played by Carla Gugino on television. And the pilot was terrific, but then we had to sit down and figure out how to come up with material that good every week — by the way, times 22, because it was a broadcast show. And we couldn't do it. So I say sometimes my penance for that relatively near-miss was going back, 'cause I really, really love Elmore's work. Part of what makes me so gratified is, that guy has literally done everything and anything a writer can do, and the one thing he didn't have was a hit television show based on one of his characters or books. So now he has that and has been able to really enjoy it. That's been really, really cool.
TV Guide Magazine: You've also talked about being a little tired of antiheroes. Back when the Emmy nominations were announced in July, it felt like we'd reached peak antihero; five out of the six lead actors nominated were all basically playing sociopaths. Justified bucks that trend.
Landgraf: It does! He's a flawed hero, rather than an antihero. You just kind of have to go in the opposite direction of where the trend's going. Interestingly enough — this is not a decision of which I'm tremendously proud — but we developed, and I passed on, Breaking Bad. And the reason that I did, though, was that with The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me on the air, I was like, "Well, are we going to be an exclusively antihero-based network?" A male, white antihero-based network. And isn't that a small, fairly narrow brand? Now, if I could go back, of course I'd pick up Breaking Bad. But the reason I didn't is I've never wanted FX to get pigeonholed into a small cul-de-sac. I think our ambitions creatively are much more expansive than that.
TV Guide Magazine: Does the same go for the Outlaw Country pilot, with John Hawkes and Mary Steenburgen?
Landgraf: [Sighs] That was a really tough decision. Yeah, we've only made two pilots we haven't ordered. I think there are other channels who would have picked up that pilot. It was a good pilot. But ultimately, I didn't feel it was filling a void in television that was unfilled, whereas I do feel that way about Justified.
TV Guide Magazine: Other than the void of not having John Hawkes on TV.
Landgraf: Well, that is a void, I agree with that.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you have a theory for why Sons of Anarchy has been such a success in the 18-49 demographic, while Justified is a little more of a modest hit?
Landgraf: With American Horror Story and Sons of Anarchy, more than 70 percent of the audience that watches those shows is between the ages of 18 and 49. With Justified, it's around 50 percent. The median age of American Horror Story and Sons of Anarchy is in the mid-30s; the median age of Justified is 48 or 49. So it's just a show that appeals to a slightly more mature audience. And that, by the way, is good. Because one of the things we want as a channel is to cover many, many bases with our shows. We don't want them all to appeal to the exact same people. So I like the idea of having an older show. Like, I found out that Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks get together and watch Justified. [Laughs] Those guys are my heroes! I'm just so tickled about that.
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