Speaking to assembled TV critics back in the summer of 2010, FX Entertainment Chief John Landgraf said that the basic cable network’s dramas had a “tendency to want to do the literature of the common woman and the common man.”
At the time, FX was two seasons into Sons of Anarchy, focusing on an outlaw biker gang in small-town Northern California; it had just launched the Kentucky-fried country cops-and-crooks saga Justified, based on stories by novelist Elmore Leonard; it would before long send the low-rent private eyes of Terriers to the pound early after an excess of praise but a dearth of viewers; and it was one year from the end of the salacious, outrageous, and (at times) poignant FDNY drama Rescue Me.
So, against a backdrop of hairy, gunrunning bikers, meth-dealing white supremacists and a hair-trigger U.S. Marshal, scruffy gumshoes in a blue-collar beach town, and rowdy firefighters whose private and professional lives were equally fraught with drama and danger, Landgraf’s comment made sense.
But in the years since, FX broadened the brand. It took on love, sex, and the Cold War in The Americans; threw various mixes of lust, horror, violence, and heavy doses of brutal misogyny into a blender to produce a new flavor each season of American Horror Story; found dismembered bodies, mental illness, crime, and corruption in Texas and Mexico in The Bridge; brought the Coen Bros.’ sensibility to TV in Fargo; sent an American dad back to his Middle Eastern megalomaniac roots in Tyrant; and blowtorched the sparkle off vampires in The Strain.
But, Sons launches into its final season on Tuesday, Sept. 9, and in January, Justified also starts its last run. When those are gone, Fargo stands alone as a representation of blue-collar, small-town life (albeit through a Coen-like funhouse mirror).
Has FX abandoned its disenfranchised white-guy audience, first captured by crusading but crooked cop Vic Mackey in The Shield?
Sitting down in Beverly Hills with Breitbart News in the summer of 2014, Landgraf says, “I would like to find a great white-male antihero to replace Raylan Givens on Justified, when that show is done… and a rural show. Yeah, so, look, I don’t want to give up part of our brand. I think that’s a core constituency of our channel, and it’s important to us.”
He continues, “It was decision not to confine ourselves to being a disenfranchised, white-man, antihero channel, the decision to be bigger, grander, broader in our aspirations… but then we always have to tend to our knitting, and we are very popular with males and young males.”
“The Strain is a big hit with young men. So I know they’ll be there; we just have to make shows they love,” he explains. “To tell you the truth, to replace a show like Sons of Anarchy is hard, because it’s not just that the show’s a huge hit, it’s the level of attachment, the level of passion that the audience feels for that show, is very hard to replace.
“Look, we’ll find a Justified in place of it, I just haven’t found it yet,” Landgraf states.
When reminded that while Occupy characters were taken seriously on TV shows, Tea Party characters were villains or comic relief, that the stories of returning veterans aren’t being told aside from portraying them as PTSD time bombs, and that a big segment of the heartland workforce is idled, perhaps permanently, Landgraf sighs.
“You know,” he says, “those shows aren’t being pitched. We’re not located in Little Rock, Arkansas; we’re located in Los Angeles, California. The creative community isn’t as tapped in.”
“We’ve beefed up our executive core, and we try to go everywhere we possibly can,” Landgraf explains. “But the other thing, look, there’s a lot of frustration and anger and depression, to tell you the truth, in that segment of the audience. You can’t just feed it back to them in a really depressing way.”
“You have to create something that’s exhilarating. I’m always looking for something that’s really different,” he says. “I don’t want to put something on the air that’s a thinly veiled attempt to pander to an audience. So, Justified and Sons of Anarchy may appeal to that audience, but they earn it.”
When he was pushing for the Sons pickup, Landgraf says he looked to blue-collar reality TV for inspiration.
“It’s very hard,” he says, “to develop a scripted show that has the kind of authenticity and voice that a show like Dirty Jobs or Deadliest Catch have, or, frankly, even Duck Dynasty. Those are real guys. I said, ‘I think this is a show that will appeal to that audience. They want a show with real people. They want it to feel real to them.”
Landgraf also insists he’s not answering to an ideological master.
“I don’t have a bias going in,” he says. “I’m not trying to serve a particular constituency or a particular political agenda or a particular geographic area. I’m trying to find stories that feel funny, real, authentic to me, and also intelligent. Fargo is a smart show about people who live in small towns, just like Justified is a smart show about people who live in the South.”
FX has also tried sports, having better luck with the fantasy-football comedy The League than with the boxing drama Lights Out. Landgraf hasn’t given up on the notion, but he’s skeptical that it can be done.
“You know why?” he says. “Because we can’t write anything as good as the thing itself. We can’t. It’s just too good. Why would you watch our scripted version of something when you can get the real thing. I feel like, someone will crack it, but it’s harder than you think. If you’re a fan, how could a scripted show about professional football be anywhere near as good as football?”
But we both agree that, even for a non-baseball fan, Moneyball, based on Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane, manages to be simultaneously a great character study and a great sports movie. Landgraf also has a personal reason for liking it.
“That book and that movie,” he says, “are the most accurate portrayal of what I do for a living than anything else I’ve ever seen. Honestly, strange as it sounds, what Billy Beane does on a daily basis, and as much as he’s in baseball, and we’re in television, it’s the exact same job.”
He continues, “Billy Beane is trying to find different ways of finding value elsewhere, that’s Justified, that’s Fargo. That’s what we’re doing exactly.”
About that great scripted sports drama that has cross-gender appeal: “I hope it comes through my door,” says Landgraf. “I’ll buy it if it does. I’d love something like that.”