FX launched 20 years ago, in June of 1994, with the tagline “The World’s First Living Television Network.” fX, as it was stylized back then, divided its programming in two categories: repeats of classics (Batman, Eight Is Enough) and original shows broadcast live (Sound fX, The Pet Department). fX tried to be an interactive and Internet-friendly network, even devoting an entire show — Backchat — to answering emails. That version failed, but the experimentation was telling — it’s a network that has always wanted to be a step ahead of the rest.
2002 was when FX came into its own after introducing original dramas. The network specifically targeted men 18-49 — it still does, and without subtlety; the otherwise great Fargo adaptation is far more male-centric than the movie, and the network passed on Broad City (which went on to become one of the funniest new shows of the season) — while its new brother network, FXX, targets ages 18-35. FXX is a good idea in theory, but it isn’t available in many cable packages, meaning viewers could no longer watch the FX comedies that switched over, and there weren’t enough originals to anchor FXX, resulting in months of only syndicated programs. Neither network has a distinct identity or tons of originals, but combined, there are plenty of gems in their lineups. Here are the FX and FXX shows you should be watching.
I once considered Archer to be the funniest show on television because it had more laughs per minute than anything else I watched. From the wildly creative mind of Adam Reed (who pens nearly all the episodes by himself), Archer is an animated comedy about an anachronistic spy agency with episodes ranging from trigger-happy espionage missions to just workplace humor.
The one-liners are great, but I’ve always been more impressed at the mileage Archer gets out of wordplay and editing; a character will start a sentence and, after a quick cut, another character will finish it — in a different location and in a different context. It’s so smart that it’s almost frustrating to watch. Admittedly, episodes began to feel a bit stale last season, but after rebooting to Archer: Vice, the show reinvented itself and, once again, proved how funny it could be. Archer was renewed for a sixth and seventh season, and the next will un-reboot and put the characters back at ISIS. Whatever the show becomes in the future, I firmly believe that, at its core, it will always remain a story about friendship between a man and an ocelot.
Granted, television is full of stories featuring attractive guys with a penchant for liquor who smoothly whip out guns and save the day. And yes, Timothy Olyphant has even played a version of this character before on Deadwood, but that doesn’t make Justified any less gripping. Justified was developed by Graham Yost (who got his start on Hey Dude) and is based on novels by Elmore Leonard. Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a US Marshal working in Kentucky.
Timothy Olyphant is the clear star of the show — the way he delivers certain Southern turns of phrases is a killer — but as the series goes on, there is so much praise to be heaped upon Jeremy Davies and Walton Goggins, whose performances add complexity to the roles. Justified did fall off a bit during its recent fifth season, and I doubt it will ever reach the highs of its second — 13 moonshine-heavy episodes about a war between crime organizations and a war between families, featuring an unforgettable performance from Kaitlyn Dever — but there’s still time to go out on a high note with its sixth and final season next year.
American Horror Story (FX)
Where to begin with American Horror Story? Ryan Murphy’s anthology horror series is notoriously up and down — from season to season, episode to episode, and even scene to scene. It is inarguably ambitious, but it’s these high ambitions that make the failures more noticeable. AHS restarts every season with a new story, setting, and characters (though there is some overlap, with actors like Jessica Lange and Evan Peters appearing in multiple stories).
The first season was fascinating if only because it was filling a horror void in television (and the episodes were full of shocks and scares) and after an uneven season ended with a fun haunted house story. The second and third seasons, Asylum and Coven, had more promising premises and featured great performances from Lange and Lily Rabe. Coven was especially enjoyable to watch, even as it became more and more ridiculous. That’s the fun of AHS: the absurd train-wreck quality makes it hard to turn off.
The Americans (FX)
The immediate draw of The Americans is the espionage narrative — though it’s definitely not the dramatic version of Archer — but its real intrigue is the marriage and family drama that lies beneath the surface. The Americans is a Cold War thriller that stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet KGB agents who pose as a married couple in Washington, DC. Their two children have no idea what their parents do, and neither does their neighbor (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent.
Joe Weisberg, the show’s creator and a former CIA officer, has said that the show is ultimately about a marriage. The Americans does feature plenty of tense, edge-of-your-seat dramatics, with some amazingly choreographed fight scenes — and, of course, a whole lot of FX-approved sex scenes — but the heart is the relationship between the Jenningses, the realization that they love each other, and the realization that this may be their downfall. It will surely get a third season, and The Americans might become the drama that FX needs to distinguish itself.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX)
But if there’s any show that FX is known for, it’s this one. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the network’s biggest success story. Sunny follows a group of fuck-ups who take selfishness to a new level, spending most of their time drinking in the bar that they own or screwing each other over. There are no redeeming qualities to these characters — except perhaps Charlie (Charlie Day) who is too dumb to really know any better — but that’s what makes it so funny.
Sunny doesn’t rely on serialized plots or characters who hug each other at the end of every episode. You can put on just about any episode out of context and enjoy every second of it. There is no shortage of episodes, either. Sunny has had nine seasons so far and is renewed for three more, bringing the total up to at least 12 (the show remains fresh by keeping its seasons short). The production quality has noticeably increased since the first season, but thankfully, the characters all remain wonderful assholes.
If It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a great example of FX’s humble but great comedic beginnings, then Louie is an example of FX’s confident and innovative future. Louie is perhaps the most critically acclaimed sitcom currently on television, but it feels strange to consider it a sitcom. Its nature is almost indescribable. Louie is sometimes so overwhelmingly heavy and beautiful — in every sense of the word — that I’ll find myself holding my breath while watching; other times it’s so goddamn funny that I have to pause the episode because I can’t hear it over my own laughter.
There are loose vignettes, a mix of self-contained episodes and longer arcs, a lack of continuity that frees up actors to appear in different roles — as Louie’s date in one episode, then his mother in another — and a distinct style that’s usually reserved for long films, not half-hour comedies. Louie will return to FX for its fourth season on May 5 with back-to-back weekly episodes, and I’m sure it won’t disappoint.
FX and FXX have a few other great programs on their lineup. Kurt Sutter’s dark biker comedy Sons of Anarchy has been loved by many critics and fans, even when its episodes tend to go a bit insane. The League has surpassed its original “bros talkin’ ’bout fantasy football” premise to become a strong, consistently funny hang-out sitcom (the ease with which the actors fall into this semi-improvised world is impressive). Wilfred, a truly strange stoner buddy comedy about a guy and a dog, will be missed after it airs its final season this summer. And though it was canceled, it should be said that Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell was one of the smartest late-night programs I’ve ever watched.
If you’ve exhausted all of FX’s current offerings, you can dig up their past triumphs on Netflix: Denis Leary’s fire drama Rescue Me, Ryan Murphy’s increasingly bizarre Nip/Tuck, the Emmy-nominated legal drama Damages, and the can’t-recommend-enough Terriers.