Where Have You Gone, FX?

There was a time when FX was the place people too poor to pay for HBO went to watch the best TV on TV.

where have you gone christian troy, a network turns its lonely eyes to you

where have you gone christian troy, a network turns its lonely eyes to you

In the early and mid-90s, everything FX put on the air was a complete critical and ratings home run. The Shield (2002) and Nip/Tuck (2004) each won Golden Globes for best drama. In 2004, three of the five nominees in the Golden Globe’s best actor category were from FX shows — Michael Chiklis for The Shield, Julian McMahon for Nip/Tuck and Denis Leary for Rescue Me. The Emmys honored Chiklis with best actor in 2002, and later, honored Glenn Close in 2008 and 2009 for Damages. Close also scored a nomination for The Shield and Minnie Driver for The Riches. Leary’s nabbed two best actor nominations at the Emmys.

For a network that only was airing about five original shows a year, that’s a pretty good ratio. It’s especially impressive since most of FX’s shows are designed to be either too intense (Shield), too completely out of the mold (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) or too gratuitous (Nip/Tuck) that they are meant to shock and titillate first and impress second. Or third or fourth or 10th. Whenever. Just know “impress” was pretty far down the list.

FX defined “edgy.” While its basic cable contemporaries were staying safe and scoring hits with their original but easy programming — think Monk and The Closer — FX was the network taking crazy chances on shows like Son of the Beach or Over There. Sometimes it failed miserably — we’re still trying to wipe Dirt from our memories — but its misses were rare.

Starting with The Shield in 2002, FX has aired 20 original series. Five of them (The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Sunny, Sons of Anarchy) have been complete hits. Six more (Damages, Justified, Lucky, Over There, The Riches, Thief) were critical hits that got Emmy attention even if the ratings weren’t necessarily good. That’s 55 percent of its shows that have received the good kind of attention — no other basic cable network can say that. At least not until AMC starts churning out more original shows.

And that’s the problem — for the first time, FX has major basic cable competition in the niche it has completely ruled for the last decade. AMC and other cable networks are pulling a Daniel Plainview. Don Draper and a bunch of zombies are taking their straws and drinking from the bottom of FX’s milkshake.

Consider the 10 original shows FX aired this year. When you do, remember that AMC aired all of four original shows this year and three of the four are Emmy worthy:

SONS OF ANARCHY: A disappointing season after two very, very promising ones. The show fit itself for water skis by taking a four-episode jaunt to Ireland. In the process, it joined such esteemed, late-in-their-run 80s sitcoms like Family Ties, Facts of Life and Head of the Class that tried to revive themselves by taking a trip overseas. If you’re keeping score at home, I just compared Sons of Anarchy to Head of the Class’s ill-advised, Bad Idea Jeans trip to Russia. Lest we forget SOA’s prison set-up for next season, when not only will the show have its water skis on, but it’ll be revving the boat engine by picking the show and its stars up and plopping them in a new setting, no different than Laverne and Shirley or McNamara/Troy moving to LA. If Ted McGinleyshows up in the cast next year running Hale’s mayoral campaign, watch out. With the network losing Nip/Tuck this year and Rescue Me next year, it needs a signature drama and Sons of Anarchy is supposed to be that show. If this season is any indication, it might be hitching its wagon to the wrong star.

still not ready to forgive over the finale. why doesn't anyone else realize we've been duped?

still not ready to forgive over the finale. why doesn't anyone else realize we've been duped?

RESCUE ME: Down year highlighted by a finale that obviously was supposed to be the opener for the last season that still no one else has picked up on other than me. Its final season already has been shot and will air next year, guaranteeing stale Mel Gibson references. As good as the show is and has been, for the last couple seasons it hasn’t been able to give good, consistent entertainment and hasn’t reached the “must watch” level since its second season.

DAMAGES: Great year, bad ratings, canceled. The network was so sick of the show, its hefty pricetag and its low ratings it was comfortable saying, “Sure DirecTV, you can have it. Please, take it. No really, feel free. We insist. No give backs!!!” Damages was guaranteed to get Emmy attention every year to keep FX’s awards cred flowing. FX took a look at the rest of its schedule, must have seen there was nothing else with Emmy juice, shurgged its shoulders, said, “Meh” and still decided to cut ties. If that’s not telling about the state of the network, nothing is.

TERRIERS: Pretty ho-hum, probably going to be canceled after Wednesday’s first-season finale. The argument going around was that shouldn’t have been on FX in the first place, that it didn’t fit the brand. That could be possible, but bottom line was it really wasn’t that engaging. As much as I like Donal Logue, this just wasn’t the show for him.

ARCHER: Too cult-ish for me, not nearly as funny as I hoped it would be. It probably is funny, it’s just not the funny I was looking for. Don’t ask me what the funny I was looking for was, I have no idea. I just know this show didn’t click with me at all and in the three episodes I watched, I rarely even smiled, let alone laughed.

awesome, awesome, awesome

awesome, awesome, awesome

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA: Last night’s hysterical episode notwithstanding, it’s been a completely down, disappointing season so far. Still funny, just not as funny as last year. To make matters worse, it apparently tanked when Comedy Central picked it up in syndication over the summer. Not quite sure why that happened, the show is in a very, very exclusive class of sitcoms that are just as funny — or funnier — on repeat viewings than the first time you saw them. There are, like, five of those shows in syndication right now, it’s amazing the world wasn’t ready for another. Too bad.

NIP/TUCK: Ended in relative obscurity because it stuck around at least a year too long. Wrinkles in the show couldn’t even have been fixed by McNamara/Troy despite a good finale. Gave us some great TV — even in the lean last couples seasons — but it was a looonnnnnggggg way from its incredible second season in 2004.

LOUIE: Coming back next year despite poor ratings and a direction that doesn’t make much comedic sense. Too awkward to be really funny.

THE LEAGUE: Continually alienates what should be its core audience, fantasy football players. Last straw for me was when the guys fought to keep it an eight-team league when about .000001 of fantasy football leagues in the country have eight teams and even casual fantasy football fans would kick the snot out of these guys if they had to go to a draft with them. This is the Jay Leno of sitcoms — whatever success it has is a mystery to me.

JUSTIFIED: The one clear-cut bright spot on the network’s schedule, it’s a well-crafted police drama with great actors and good stories. Its first-season finale was easily in the top 5 finales in 2010 and pushed it into must-watch territory for 2011. And it has nothing to do with my slight man-crush on Timothy Olyphant. Actually, I’d want this show to fail so he could take Steve Carell’s spot in The Office.

So where does that leave what used to be the most trustworthy network on TV, where you could watch any new show and be guaranteed a winner? The Fighter looks pretty promising and Wilifred could be interesting even though it probably will be paired with Louie.

But that’s just about it. In 2011, Justified and Sons of Anarchy will be the network’s only “veteran” shows when in previous years it had three or four stalwarts it could plan its year around. And Justified was only a mild hit. This looks and feels a lot like when HBO was losing The Sopranos in 2007 and placed all its programming eggs in John from Cincinnati’s basket — and we all know how that turned out. The network still hasn’t recovered and is now working to keep the “Best Pay Cable Original Programing” title from moving to Showtime.

Watch your back, FX. That’s AMC right on your butt.

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