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FX Used to Have Some of the Best Dramas on TV -- What Happened?

How can FX produce so many great comedies but struggle when it comes to drama?

Kaitlin Thomas

There was a time, around the heyday of Sons of Anarchy, The League, and the early seasons of Justified, in which it felt like I watched nearly every series, drama or comedy, that aired on FX and its sister network FXX. But it's been years since most of those same shows rode off into the sunset, and although the thrills of Cold War espionage and the fascinating family dynamics of The Americans (technically a show from that same era), kept me engaged until last year, I've noticed a disturbing trend across FX: while there has been a rise in exceptional comedies, there's also been a decline in the number of quality dramas available.

Let's take a quick look back at some of the dramas the network has produced in the last five years. The Strain? Hard pass. The Bridge? A good show that couldn't bring in viewers. Tyrant? Definitely a show that existed on TV. Snowfall? Had potential but never came together. Legion? Incredible first season followed by struggles in Season 2. Taboo: ??? The only dramas currently worth watching, in my opinion, are Pose and Mayans M.C., a spin-off of Sons of Anarchy I was vehemently against but somehow came around on by the end of its first season.

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One of the possible explanations for the decline of FX's overall drama slate is a shift in the way the network's development system has operated in the last few years. Following the success of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, FX started to rely more heavily on Murphy (he'd previously created Nip/Tuckfor the network, which ran from 2003 until 2010) until it felt like he was the backbone of its programming. The prolific writer-producer-director also had a hand in producing American Crime Story, Feud, and Pose, some of which are still active at the network (AHS and Pose have been renewed for additional seasons, though future installments of ACS and Feud have stalled), so even though Murphy has since departed for Netflix, his influence can still be felt.

​Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Apocalypse

Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Apocalypse


I bring this up because Murphy's success at FX, which includes an abundance of critical praise as well as awards recognition, has in turn led to a noticeable uptick in the number of limited and anthology projects at the network (and television as a whole, even if the word limited has lost all meaning in Hollywood). In addition to American Horror Story, American Crime Story and Feud, the network's recent anthology slate includes Fargo (a fourth season is in the works) and Trust (which hasn't been renewed, although the first season debuted in March 2018), as well as the upcoming limited series Fosse/Verdon, Mrs. America, and Devs.

While limited and anthology series have their value -- the competition at the Emmys is somewhat less competitive in the limited categories and it is no doubt easier to sign big name stars to one-season shows rather than, say, six-year contracts -- it sometimes feels like the network has abandoned its efforts to bring viewers compelling ongoing dramas that have the potential to engage audiences over a number of years in favor of limited series that might produce short-term buzz or awards. And it's disappointing to think FX prioritizes accolades over everything else, but the numbers also speak for themselves.

To date, American Horror Story, Fargo, American Crime Story, and Feud have received 199 nominations (including Creative Arts), taking home 41. In comparison, the combined nominations earned by The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, The Riches, Damages, Justified, The Americans, Tyrant, Legion, Taboo, Louie, Baskets, Atlanta, Better Things, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia(which moved to FXX in 2013), Archer(which moved to FXX in 2017), and The Comedians comes to just 149. Those same series have taken home 23 Emmys in total.

Of course, not all of FX's limited ventures have captured audiences in the same way. Although it was critically praised, Feud took home just two Emmys (out of 15 nominations) and a planned second season about Princes Charles and Princess Diana fell apart. Meanwhile, Trust received zero accolades but generated a lot of buzz about Brendan Fraser's hat. So what does the network have to show for either of those ventures right now?

JD Pardo, Mayans M.C.

JD Pardo, Mayans M.C.

Prashant Gupta/FX

Not every show a network puts on air is obviously going to lead to golden statuettes or universal critical acclaim. But FX has a strong history of producing consistently compelling dramas with an ability to capture viewers' attention. The quality of past programming is clear, beginning with The Shield and Rescue Me and continuing on to include The Riches, Damages, Justified, The Americans, and even Terriers, which found success on streaming services though it lasted just one season on FX. And that's not even mentioning Sons of Anarchy, which yes, suffered from bloated runtimes and other issues in its later years but still ran for seven seasons. Despite its struggles, Sons went on to become the network's highest-rated drama series before eventually spinning off another popular adrenaline-soaked drama several years after signing off the air.

In a television landscape where broadcast and cable must compete with ever popular streaming services to attract viewers to more than 500 scripted series, it's becoming harder and harder for shows to break out on their own, so networks like FX, which produce a much smaller number of shows each year, need to develop and maintain a loyal audience. It's difficult to do that when producing more and more limited series that don't necessarily keep viewers coming back year after year (American Horror Story, which has been renewed through Season 10, is the exception, and even the long-running anthology has relied more on crossovers and bringing back old characters to excite viewers in recent seasons).

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When you look at the comedies airing across FX and its sister network FXX, you can see how investing in ongoing series pays off, as the comedy slate has risen to unprecedented heights over the last half decade. The mother/daughter relationships at the center of Pamela Adlon's Better Things, which was just renewed for a fourth season, are an exquisite, heartfelt look at life's often overlooked moments. Shows like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Archer have only gotten better as the comedies themselves have aged but not necessarily matured. And the emotional complexities of shows like Baskets, Atlanta, and You're the Worst -- ostensibly all comedies though they all have dabbled in serious drama at some point -- have helped the shows to grow with each passing season. Now the network's adaptation of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows is poised to be one of the best and funniest shows of the year.


What We Do in the Shadows

John P Johnson/FX

FX and FXX are currently drowning in exceptional comedies -- a statement that could probably be applied to all of television as comedy has seen a brilliant resurgence in the last few years -- but the truly good dramas seem to be dwindling and dying out. Right now FX is preparing to launch the third and final season of Legion and the second season of Pose in June, but the second season of Mayans M.C. isn't likely to air until the fall. There's no word yet on when Mr InBetween, a half-hour drama out of Australia that received positive reviews but little in the way of actual publicity, will return at all.

On the limited series side of things is Fosse/Verdon, a new eight-episode series chronicling the professional and romantic relationship between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams and debuting April 9, the series certainly has star power, but I'm not sure it has the wider appeal of some of the network's other programs and unfortunately threatens to be passed over and forgotten by the masses.

In development and scheduled to debut next year is Y, a long gestating, highly anticipated adaptation of Y: The Last Man that many hope will be a big hit for the network. The rest of the shows in development tend to be comedies and more limited series, which seems to indicate that ongoing dramas will remain less of a priority for the network in the near future.

FX is known for being an auteur-friendly network offering immense freedom to its creators, and the comedy slate is a perfect example of what happens when that development system is working perfectly. Right now there is a wide-ranging but small slate of shows with distinct identities and voices that are directly tied to the people driving them. The rest, in comparison, is an amalgam of existing intellectual properties, Ryan Murphy, whatever the hell Taboo was, and a number of limited series -- some with high awards potential but limited interest and likely limited shelf life. FX is not Netflix; it doesn't have the ability to produce limitless, niche content. But since The Shield first put the network on the scripted map in 2002, FX has proven it does have the ability to create top tier, quality shows across its entire programming slate regardless of genre; I hope it can find the right voices and stories to nurture and amplify in the longterm on the drama side before viewers are distracted by shiny new streaming shows and forget just how good FX's programs can be.