Once upon a time, HBO and Showtime were the Coke and Pepsi of the cable TV world, the two poles of the quality TV revolution. They were the giants of the Sopranozoic Era.
They can still kill, both of them, delivering the kinds of original, smartly written, artfully filmed stories that have given series TV such a good name. With the likes of “Game of Thrones” and “Masters of Sex,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Shameless,” “True Detective” and “Nurse Jackie,” both HBO and Showtime show little sign of fading. But it’s time to add a third channel to the exclusive top tier. I’m thinking FX.
I can’t come up with any good reasons that FX should not be mentioned in the same breath as HBO and Showtime. Since FX is a basic-cable channel, it has to run commercials while the other two don’t. We can’t feel as if we’re watching 12-hour movies on FX, as we do on pay cable, since FX shows are interrupted by the unwelcome punctuation of hard sells. But, really, that’s only true during live viewing, which is so premillennial; DVRs, DVDs, and streaming services essentially solve the ad problem.
The evidence in favor of FX is overwhelming. It has been interesting for a long time, with “The Shield” as the breakout drama in 2002 and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” as the breakout comedy in 2005. Before “Nip/Tuck” lost its mind, it was a fascinating satire, and Denis Leary’s “Rescue Me” was a fierce, beautifully acted drama that captured post-9/11 New York like no other series before or since. The rest of the 2000s saw a number of honorable failures, including “Over There,” an early take on soldiers in the war in Iraq, and “Thief,” with Andre Braugher as the head of a team of robbers. The finest failure, though, came in 2010 with “Terriers,” the richly textured buddy drama that just never caught on.
But now, well, FX is overstocked with Grade A material, most of which has connected with an audience. The spy drama “The Americans” is one of the best shows of the year, and the fact that we’ve been toying with Cold War 2.0 has only added to its resonance. The show looks at marriage and parenting through the lens of espionage, with a pair of knockout performances by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. Mysteriously, “The Americans” won no major Emmy nominations when they were announced last week; I wonder if the show might have been more closely considered if aired on HBO.
“Justified” has done remarkable justice to Elmore Leonard’s fiction, and the cast, led by Timothy Olyphant as cowboy marshal Raylan Givens, is superb. “Fargo” was a smartly conceived miniseries based on the Coen brothers movie, and “American Horror Story,” while over the top, is effectively creepy and well acted. Together, they got a massive 35 Emmy nominations last week. There’s the brilliant comedy-drama-indie-movie hybrid “Louie,” the hyper-witty cartoon “Archer,” and the unique “Wilfred,” now on FXX, which offers a trove of inside jokes for dog owners.
One reason FX may still be struggling for premier status beside HBO and Showtime is its willingness to sidle up to relevance, to veer toward the incendiary, to go deep on sensitive subjects. That was the case with “The Shield,” which explored the tension between ethics and ruthless peacekeeping, and with “Nip/Tuck,” which boldly took on our culture’s intimate relationship between self-love and self-loathing. Just devoting an entire series to 9/11, alcoholism, and Leary’s profane temperament was a risky stroke, the kind of timely challenge to viewers that most channels avoid. “Rescue Me” remains an important addition to the TV canon.
And that risk-taking is currently the case with “The Bridge,” which just returned for its second season, and “Tyrant,” which premiered a few weeks back. Both shows have their feet placed firmly in two of the more controversial news stories of the day. “The Bridge” is set on the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, putting a weary face on the immigration controversy that continues to dog both politicians and citizens. And “Tyrant” is a trouble-making look at despotism and revolution in the Middle East and the way Americans are sheltered from it. Both shows are morally complex, unafraid of ugliness, flawed but worthwhile.
FX’s in-your-face approach is an integral part of its brand. Most networks are constantly in the process of developing their identity, giving all of their shows something in common — most obviously so for, say, HGTV, and more subtly so for broader entertainment outlets like FX. For AMC, the brand is slow drama with cinematic effects — think “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” IFC’s theme is indie comedy, USA’s is lite drama.
FX is not shy about its desire to prod the viewer, and not only in drama but also in comedy, not least of all with “Louie,” which toys with our sense of predictable format and our expectations of what comedy is in the first place. That aggressive style is less careful than HBO’s, but no less valuable. FX is anything but precious, which, in the long run, makes it precious indeed.