Most TV network slogans can easily be glossed over as pithy marketing phrases that are more in the vein of vision-boarding than an accurate reflection of what its lineup has to offer. FX’s slogan “Fearless,” however, is worth considering. Although “There Is No Box” gave way to “Fearless” in 2013, FX has been consistently skirting the norms of network television since its inception in 1994, most notably with its string of unflinchingly gritty and subversive dramas in the early 2000s (The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me) that can be seen as some of the harbingers of TV’s current golden era.
“It took us a while to arrive at ‘Fearless’ as our brand moniker, but it really is a mission statement for us,” says John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions. “We want you to feel when you’re watching our shows that you don’t know what’s going to happen and that you’re not in a safe place that is governed by guardrails that are going to keep you from going off. Most people would rather go to the theme park version of the thing rather than the thing itself. And that’s fine–I think there’s a place in this world for safety. That’s not the experience that we provide.”
That said, being “Fearless” shouldn’t be mistaken for being reckless. During Landgraf’s 14 years at FX he’s taken the network on a controlled nosedive into inventive storytelling, refining the FX brand to be synonymous with doing more through less.
Back in 2015 during the Television Critics Association press tour, Landgraf railed against the boom in programming across digital and traditional networks, giving rise to the now often-cited term “peak TV.” And he isn’t off the mark, necessarily. Earlier this year, Netflix announced that it would up its original shows from 600 hours in 2016 to 1,000. There’s something to be said for giving consumers choice, but what concerns Landgraf is what’s potentially lost in such a break-neck scramble for more.
“There’s no way we’re going to make as many shows as Netflix–we’re not going to win through quantity,” Landgraf says. “What I decided I wanted to try to do is build a sense of what an FX series is, that there is something happening here in terms of innovation, quality, fearlessness, and originality. And if you have an appetite for that, FX is a channel that’s worth paying attention to. I think HBO has done a really good job of that. HBO is more than just a group of shows–it’s a brand. And my point of view was we’ve got to stand for something–we’ve got to turn FX into a brand that means something.”
Prior to FX, Landgraf spent 15 years as a producer and TV executive who found success in developing seminal shows including ER, The West Wing, and Friends. However, those experiences proved to be the exception, not the rule.
“I was just very frustrated at that time with the state of broadcast television. I felt like it was playing defense, not offense,” Landgraf says. “I struggled a lot during that period time as a producer to support artists in the way I wanted to. I felt like the business process was conspiring to dull down the vision of the artist.”
Fast forward to Peter Liguori, former president and general manager of FX, approaching Landgraf to join FX in 2004 as president of entertainment–a proposition that, admittedly, Landgraf was skeptical about.
“Basic cable really hadn’t proven its ability at that point to make excellent programming except for Nip/Tuck and The Shield. So I sat down and watched all the episodes of The Shield and all the episodes of Nip/Tuck and I was excited,” Landgraf says. “I was really blown away by the uncompromising, aggressive originality of those shows. They didn’t seem to care what you thought of them. They were made to be what they are and you can love it or you can hate it, but it didn’t feel like it was a product that had been focus-grouped to death.”
Operating under the banner of “Fearless,” Landgraf has steered FX to its most prominent position ever, marked by its flashpoint in 2016 by setting a basic cable record of 56 Emmy Award nominations with 18 wins. FX’s portfolio of critical and commercial powerhouses like The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Atlanta, Louie, American Horror Story, and Feud have put the network squarely in the spotlight with the added pressure of maintaining its place among the elite of prestige TV.
“When I started here I had a lot of anxieties about how are we going to find the next hit show. And now that I’ve been doing this for 14 years, here’s what I realize: If we create the environment where we know how to [sense] talent and then we actually help them make better work instead of compressing it, good work will come,” Landgraf says. “It’s not like we’re a heat-seeking missile that’s finding finished excellence and plucking it out of the air. We’re getting in on the ground [level].”
Empowering creatives to make their shows how they see fit without boxes to check from the suits has given a unique platform for the likes of Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Feud), Louis C.K. (Louie), Pamela Adlon (Better Things), and perhaps Landgraf’s strongest case study Donald Glover.
Glover’s Golden Globe-winning comedy Atlanta has become yet another crown jewel for FX because Landgraf had the foresight to see Glover’s unique perspective–and to know that he, a white man of a particular age, couldn’t be the one to bring that vision to fruition.
“I don’t know how to make a show about four young African-American characters in Atlanta. [Glover] knows how to make that show. He knows how to make a show about the contemporary millennial experience. He knows how to make a show about music,” Landgraf says. “I know how to make any show the best version of what it is because the team and I will try to get inside the intent of the artist and [say]: First of all Donald, or whomever we’re working with, let us describe to you what we think you’re trying to do. Now, given our understanding of what this show is, you should consider X, Y, or Z to make the best possible version of that show that you’re trying to make.”
Landgraf’s North Star in the abstract realm of “Fearless” is always asking himself what point of view hasn’t he seen on TV? FX’s early suite of prestige programming laid the network’s foundation, but it was a foundation that looked too similar: The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me all focused on white, male anti-heroes. Landgraf was quick to spot the trend, but it led him to what he refers to as “both the biggest mistake I ever made as a programmer, and maybe the best decision I ever made as a programmer”: He passed on Breaking Bad to pick up Damages, starring Glenn Close and Rose Byrne.
“Breaking Bad turned out to be maybe the greatest white, male anti-hero show ever made, and obviously one of the best television shows ever made. On the one hand I wish I had it, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to put a fourth white, male anti-hero show on the air,” Landgraf says. “Damages was at least trying to put an older female and a younger female point of view on the air–it was trying to take the anti-hero genre in a different direction. There are plenty of people that would like to see different versions of the same television show over and over again.”
“In my experience the artists who come to work here have some radical idea about how they want to break down and reinvent a genre,” Landgraf continues. “They want to get under the surface of a genre, they want to get under the surface of character in a way that’s fundamentally challenging. We don’t have to tell the same stories over and over again. You can build a television show around anybody’s point of view.”
Part of being “Fearless,” of course, is learning to incur the inevitable misfires. Take, for example, 2012’s short-lived series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, the author and comedian‘s take on a late-night show. Landgraf says Totally Biased lasted for just two seasons because, in hindsight, it was three years early.
“I think it was very hard for Kamau to do a daily show–he would have needed to do a weekly show for a longer period of time. But I feel like that show probably would work if we were doing it today,” Landgraf says. “I know there was something there because I know that guy has a perspective that’s distinctive and that belongs on television that wasn’t on television.”
Years ago, Landgraf earned the affectionate title of the “Mayor of TV” and it’s a position he doesn’t take lightly. Landgraf has been instrumental in cementing FX’s brand as a network that’s willing to take the calculated risks, misfires and all, that are necessary in continuing the push for new perspectives in storytelling.
“We still love the magic of creativity, ambition, and artistry. I want the show that isn’t just another version of a show I’ve seen before,” Landgraf says. “Atlanta comes along and I’ve just never seen anything like that. If we, through our own fear and our own cautiousness, either verbally or nonverbally told Donald ‘you better not fail’ or ‘we’re just not comfortable with not understanding this,’ [we wouldn’t be taking risks.]”
“Certainly when you run a business you have a lot of competitive challenges. But ultimately problem solving can stifle creativity, in the sense that if you have to know the answers today, then all you can come up with [are the best answers for that day],” Landgraf continues. “In the most innovative answers, there’s a process of risk taking. There is a process of trial and error. And so I’ve gotten less scared and maybe that’s why we chose ‘Fearless.’ I have gotten less scared of not knowing the answer. One of the things that we’re really good at as an organization is we’re good at not having to know the answer.”