Dancing on the Edge


FX has three dramatic series hits under its belt, with one of them, The Shield, starting its fourth season in March. It’s an enviable record. But the network isn’t resting on its laurels, and is not only ready to launch a fourth drama but is creating a comedy block as well. FX president of entertainment John Landgraf recently talked to Multichannel News editor at large Linda Moss about FX’s programming agenda for new comedy and drama series this year. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: To what extent does FX take pride, or umbrage even, when it’s described as the Home Box Office of basic cable?

JOHN LANDGRAF: It’s a good temporary shorthand for the network. The strategy really began before I arrived — it began with [FX Networks CEO] Peter Liguori, and even my predecessor — to try to put programming of the highest quality from a creative standpoint, cutting-edge programming, on basic cable. And it was probably aptly compared to HBO because they were — and are — the cutting edge of programming.

I do think though, as time has passed and as the specifics of FX’s brand have emerged, that there really are points of differentiation between the two.

MCN: How would you describe those?

LANDGRAF: One example is that all of our shows deal with contemporary reality, contemporary American reality. Each of them — The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me — deals with issues, for example, regarding policing, civil liberties, the post-traumatic stress attendant to the firefighters who worked on 9/11, narcissism and the culture of beauty, self-obsession and self-loathing. They can be very funny or edgy or very sexy, but they ultimately are serious programs that deal with contemporary emotional issues and contemporary characters.

Now obviously HBO has programming that does that also, but when you look at the breadth of what they’re involved in — from a miniseries about Rome to a show about Deadwood and a show about the Dust Bowl — clearly their sensibility and their choices are sometimes more historical, sometimes more literary.

MCN: Your network has pushed the envelope in terms of content with the dramatic series that you’ve mentioned. But has the environment in Washington today had an impact on the programming choices at the network yet?

LANDGRAF: No. We set the ground rules for how we were going to do this several years ago. We have a Broadcast Standards Department. There are things, in terms of content, that we don’t do, for example, that HBO does. There are certain words that we don’t use; there are certain gestures that we don’t use. You won’t see frontal nudity, for example.

And those broadcast standards were created when we created the original programming. They were created with The Shield. They remain consistent through Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me, and will remain consistent with subsequent programming. But the decision was also made to rate every one of these shows TVMA, to V-chip them, and to only broadcast them after 10 p.m. at night. That’s a self-imposed restriction that is very difficult and very limiting for our channel because our competitors can program original programming in primetime whenever they wish.

MCN: How much pressure is there on you to come up with the next hit?

LANDGRAF: I think all of us feel an enormous amount of pressure. I definitely do. We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve had three hits in a row. That’s a really difficult thing to have happen in television. I personally am really, really determined to add a fourth success this summer.

MCN: There are some pilots: Thief with Andre Braugher, and Over There with Steven Bochco.

LANDGRAF: We’ll make a decision about which one goes on the air this summer by mid-March. It’s not inconceivable that both may move forward in some form, but only one of them will get launched this summer.

MCN: What do those shows represent, in terms of being an FX drama, what your brand is?

LANDGRAF: If you look at the Andre Braugher show, it’s an intensely real, intensely character-driven crime drama. We’ve never done a show from the point of view of criminals before, but it’s also a family-driven character show.

If you look at Over There, you see that essentially as a channel, we were willing to go somewhere in terms of dealing with contemporary American reality that no one else was willing to. We did that with Rescue Me, too. I don’t think anybody was going to go anywhere near deconstructing the heroes of 9/11 and getting really inside that experience, because it was so hallowed and so sacred that dealing with it in an honest way was scary. It was certainly scary for us.

Well, here we are again, on the battlefield in Iraq, while the war is still raging, dealing with soldiers and their families and so, both those shows are contemporary. Both of them are intensely character-driven, both of them take a genre and they approach it from a very character-driven standpoint and a very graphically emotionally real standpoint.

MCN: To what extent will Over There, if any, take a position on the war?

LANDGRAF: You could argue that any show about this war is going to be viewed as political, because the war is so politicized, but the show actually is not political. It’s a show that doesn’t deal with politics of Washington. It doesn’t deal with the Pentagon. It really doesn’t even deal with the leadership structure of the military.

It really is about the experience of being a soldier and the cast of soldiers depicted in it are a sergeant and his platoon. There are a couple of female characters that are very prominent, too, who are transport — which is how female soldiers work — but who often find themselves caught up with things that are happening on the frontlines, which is also accurate. And those soldiers have a range of opinions.

Some love the army, love the war. Some are intensely patriotic. Others feel like they’re caught up in events beyond their control, and yet others are reflective and somewhat critical of what’s going on around them.

MCN: You’re going to be pushing the envelope there in terms of your depiction of the violence?

LANDGRAF: Well, let’s put it this way. The envelope will be right where it is on The Shield or right where it is on Nip/Tuck. I don’t think it’s going to go beyond where those shows are, but I think that reflects a different view of war than generally has been seen on television, but it’s an extremely real view of war.

MCN: FX is venturing into the comedy arena this year, which has been a tough genre. Could you talk about why you’re going into the genre, and whether you are, in fact, planning a comedy block?

LANDGRAF: For me, there’s a number of good reasons to go into this genre. One is that all of the descriptors and adjectives that I’ve been using to describe FX’s brand and to describe the programs that we have on the air — almost all of them, you wouldn’t say violence — but almost all of them are excellent descriptors for the leading edge for good comedies.

So I think there’s a really natural fit between who we are as a channel and a brand of comedy that is really distinctive from other comedy that’s being done.

MCN: Are you looking to do an actual comedy block?

LANDGRAF: Yes, we’d like to pick up two half-hours. For me that’s a decision about two things: one is trying to really throw ourselves into the fray and really show a devotion to the genre and try to achieve some critical mass by at least getting a couple of shows on the air.

MCN: You’ve done pilots for Starved, The Human Animal, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

LANDGRAF: And the Jamie Foxx sketch show. We’ve made four comedy pilots.

MCN: You hope to have a decision on those by when?

LANDGRAF: I’d say within a month [subsequent to this interview, FX greenlit Starved and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia].

MCN: How do they reflect the sensibility that you’re looking for in a comedy?

LANDGRAF: Starved is an easy one to talk about.

It’s about four friends who live in Brooklyn [N.Y.]. There are four characters — three male characters and one female character — and they all suffer from various addictions, the main one which unites them is various types of eating disorders. The title, Starved, refers to both their eating problems and their loneliness.

So it’s a show that’s about something that has never been extensively explored and depicted, eating disorders — particularly men with eating disorders — but yet is also about, again, contemporary American society, about the connection between loneliness, alienation, junk food, commercials, eating disorders.

MCN: Your network has walked off with a number of awards in recent times. How important are they?

LANDGRAF: We’re a small channel. We don’t have a massive marketing budget. I just don’t think that a lot of people would have found these shows without the support we’ve gotten from the critical community, from the television writers and reviewers, and also from the awards community.