Tonight is the much-anticipated series premiere of FX’s Fargo, an adaptation-cum-remake of The Coen Brothers’ 1996 Minnesota-based thriller. In any other context, audiences and critics would balk at the very thought of a reboot (or ‘re-imagining’ as producers of shit remakes are want to say) of one of the sibling directors’ most perfect movies. But this is FX we’re talking about; a network which has consistently made the finest television in the US since it began producing original drama in the early 2000s. The virulent hype and promotion that preceded the launch of Fargo is unusual for the network, however. Over the past decade, FX series have been continually overshadowed by the original drama programming of subscription cable alternatives HBO and Showtime as well as basic cable competitors AMC. Consequently, many FX programmes have gone under the radar of critics and, crucially, viewers. But is this all about to change?
It was a fairly ignominious start for FX when it launched in 1994. Fox’s cable channel had limited availability nationally and mostly functioned as a dumping ground for re-runs of retro TV broken up with some informal and interactive live formats that were already dated by the mid-1990s. The late ‘90s re-brand brought newer re-runs and more movies but no significant advances in original programming. The network’s targeting of a young male demographic was as short-sighted as any of those millennial media moves to mainstream machismo (pardon the bitter alliteration, or biteration, oh just ignore me…). Fox’s decision in the early 2000s to make FX the destination of its edgiest and most innovative drama was the network’s salvation. Chief among them was The Shield, a series that punctured the heroic lore of cop shows with its pulsatingly visceral depiction of a venal, corrupt and amoral police force mired in blood.
The Shield was the cop show equivalent of The Sopranos – and just as televisually breakthrough – but comparisons with the HBO gangster series did the programme no favours. Both series ran concurrently and ended at the same time, with The Sopranos taking all the plaudits from its less self-consciously artful (but no less magnificent) counterpart. The Shield couldn’t get even catch a break in the cop show stakes. Almost as soon as the first season ended, HBO premiered The Wire, a police drama that depicted urban crime with such breath-taking detail and complexity it beat The Shield (and any other cop show in the business) for realism hands-down every time. The Shield was certainly more melodramatic and stylised than The Wire but it’s an unfair comparison that severely under-estimates how much the former did to cultivate the art of anti-hero television (and it had a better final season so…nah!).
FX continued throughout the noughties making original drama that took Fox’s ‘90s legacy of groundbreaking genre series into the 21st Century. Like NYPD Blue and The X-Files before it, shows like cosmetic surgery dramedy Nip/Tuck and anti-courtroom drama Damages pushed boundaries on representations of sex, violence and obscenity while overturning TV genre conventions. But it seemed there was always something around in cable television to steal the spotlight. Nip/Tuck was invariably seen as the bastard son of HBO’s mortician family drama Six Feet Under. Damages, created by Sopranos alumni the Kessler brothers, had the misfortune of going up against a show created by another former Soprano; Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. In a sense, FX’s accomplishments are greater than those of HBO and AMC. The network works against content restrictions that subscription cable doesn’t have and the violent maturity which characterises AMC’s most celebrated programmes wouldn’t be possible without FX’s trailblazing.
I’ve only mentioned drama so far but FX’s record on comedy is also exemplary. From the poignant, beautiful nothingness of Louis C.K.’s signature sitcom Louie to W. Kumau Bell’s much-needed fuck-you to Fox’s right-wing politics Totally Biased, FX’s comedy has been as risky and powerful as its drama. FX has only been a major player in TV comedy for a few years but it’s significant as the network has been instrumental in straddling the gap between comedy and drama in recent American quality television. FX’s crowning glory, though, came in 2010 with Justified, an adaptation-cum-continuation of Elmore Leonard’s short story ‘Fire in the Hole’. A masterpiece from the first scene to its most recent season finale, this federal-western (or ‘festern’-ignore again!) bridged the chasm between the old episodic action series and a new type of arcy, complex and character-driven TV storytelling, What’s more it’s flawlessly cast, acted, directed and written.
So now you get an idea of why people aren’t up in arms about FX re-making Fargo. The network’s drama and comedy output is in a class of its own and its finest hour (or several finest hours) was an adaptation of an American classic. However, this acclaimed and high-profile source material – not to mention the calibre of star involved in the series – is just what the network needs to bring in a wider viewership, and perhaps it will rub off on some of the network’s other undiscovered gems, like the currently airing 80s-retro spy drama The Americans. Louie is just about to return after a two-year hiatus during which the popularity of its star, writer, director (and editor) grew exponentially as a result of greater national exposure. This should be enough to keep comedy fans with FX as its new comedy migrates to recently-launched sister channel FXX.