"There are few networks that can readily be counted on for consistent programming: Major networks have no problem latching on to whatever is hot, most of basic cable has become too niche-y (another cake show?), and premium cable isn't the sure thing it used to be. But over time, FX has changed from its early days of airing one long, magazine-style show to being a clear trendsetter simply by bucking trends. Whenever FX announces a new program, there's a feeling that it's going to be of a certain quality—and unlike anything else you see on television."
Some guy named me wrote that in March 2010 as a love letter to what is probably my favorite television network. The post included 10 examples of FX's knack for bending genres, and I listed shows like Archer, Justified, and Sons of Anarchy as proof of the edginess that could regularly be found on FX. That was BEFORE American Horror Story, Wilfred, and Louie joined the mix. FX has always chosen art over business. It's one of the few places who can say that.
Perhaps I'm being a little dramatic here, but it was fun while it lasted.
Last night's debut of Anger Management shovels in a new era for FX, one that has been in the works behind the scenes for some time now. Unlike previous original FX programs, we have seen Anger Management before. We've seen eight seasons of it on CBS, in fact. It's a multi-camera comedy starring Charlie Sheen as a jerkish playboy who lives in a cardboard house. It is quite unlike anything else FX has debuted, because it's so much like everything else that has been on TV for decades.
This has nothing to do with the quality of Anger Management or the talent of Charlie Sheen; it's actually a smart business decision. But it's a smear on the brand that FX had developed with smart, edgy, unpredictable shows it had carefully cultivated. I should have seen this coming. The Sheen-vasion of FX started with reruns of Two and a Half Men a few years ago. And once he became available, FX as a destination made some sense.
(Side note: A similar thing can be said of Brand X with Russell Brand, which also debuted last night. While that show falls much more in line with FX's daring personality, it does have that sense of chasing big, established names and giving them a show—any show—much like Sheen with Anger Management.)
The ratings from last night are in, and wouldn't you know it? Anger Management became cable's most-watched scripted comedy series premiere in history with 5.47 million viewers. It actually gained viewers for its second episode, jumping to 5.74 million as people tuned in to see Charlie gawking at a naked old woman he once slept with to end a hitting slump. These numbers are particularly important because Anger Management is working under that weird new renewal model that's gaining traction as basic cable grows: If the rating are good for Anger Management initial ten episodes (and they're GREAT), it's expected the show will be renewed for a whopping 90 episodes, in the same vein as TBS's deals with its Tyler Perry comedies (Tyler Perry's House of Payne has amassed 264 episodes in just 7 seasons because it follows a production schedule similar to that of a soap opera). FX will probably look at next week's numbers before making a decision, but its finger is definitely already hovering over the "renewal" button.
As basic cable steals away audiences from broadcast networks, business opportunities will continue to arise, and FX is leveraging its success into cash. Similar things are happening at AMC, where contracts are being disputed more frequently and more reality programs are being produced. It's how the world works. Build up a reputation, then make money. The success of Anger Management almost certainly means more shows like it will follow, not just on FX but on other networks. FX would be stupid or uninterested in turning in a profit not to join the fray.
Again, I don't care about the quality of Anger Management or the fact that Charlie Sheen is on it. If you like it, fine. To each his own. What I'm scared of is seeing FX move further and further in this direction, abandoning its glory days of going out of its way to be different in favor of chasing dollars. I wish all the best for FX chief John Landgraf (who wrote me a very kind personal email thanking me for the 2010 piece) because he deserves the success and a pay raise and a margarita machine for building FX into what it has become and giving people like Louis C.K., Kurt Sutter, and Adam Reed a place to let their creative juices spew without boundaries. I'm just sad that it might come at the cost of the greatness that got it there.
This isn't the end. It's a concern. On my part, this is half overreaction and half "been burned before." FX doesn't appear to be abandoning its old model, but rather adding a safety net of sure bets. None of its current programs are in danger of being canceled, so we'll still spend more seasons with SAMCRO and in Harlan County and banging international models with Sterling Archer. But this could be the first dangerous step away from the risks FX made its name on. It's the circle of life of television (and most media; the first two Kings of Leon albums were great!). Now pardon me while I write a piece on how IFC is keepin' it real. That is, until Kevin James gets a comedy on the network in 2014.