On June 1, 1994, FOX television branched off into the wilds of basic cable with a channel called "FX." Or, as it was stylized back then, "fX." Bearing very little resemblance to the FX we know today, the first years of fX were reruns of old shows buffetted by original "interactive" network content that played like an attempt to do MTV but with syndicated reruns of Wonder Woman and Eight Is Enough. With studio hosts like Tom Bergeron, Orlando Jones, and a pre-Survivor Jeff Probst, fX tried to project a hip, friendly, we-are-in-conversation-with-our-audience vibe.
It didn't last, of course; not in that incarnation. But the cable network that grew and evolved from those odd beginnings has now, 25 years later, become on of the handful of tipp-top destinations for the best of so-called "prestige TV." Or, if you feel like using the term originated by FX executive John Landgraf, "Peak TV." At a time when the TV marketplace could not be more crowded, FX stands among HBO and Netflix as the most influential platforms for new original television.
This did not happen overnight. The Baywatch parody Son of the Beach wouldn't premiere until 2000, six years into the network's existence. Two years later, with The Shield, FX had their first scripted drama. Just over six months after The Shield debuted, Michael Chiklis won the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Emmy Award, over the likes of Martin Sheen from The West Wing, Kiefer Sutherland from 24, and Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall from Six Feet Under. At that moment, FX announced itself as a serious player for serious TV professionals. Over the next 17 years, there have been more landmarks; shows that have pushed FX farther out to the front of TV innovation and farther up the hill to the best of what TV can offer.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of FX, the Primetimer staff of writers and editors submitted ballots selecting our picks for the most important FX originals of its 25-year history. Our criteria for "important" (or "greatness," for that matter) was our own. The following list represents our collective ranking. It is, we believe, a list of really great and memorable TV shows, and it's worth remembering (or basking in, if the shows are current) every one of them.
Created By: Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Schaffer
Starring: Mark Duplass, Nick Kroll, Stephen Rannazzisi, Paul Scheer
First Aired: October 29. 2009
Last Aired: December 9, 2015
How did such a specific show about a fantasy football league not get old right out of the gate? Stacked talent in front of the camera helped. But credit where credit’s due: Husband-wife creators Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer knew how to capitalize on this talent, often tailoring the show to the cast’s improv strengths. The League famously took an approach to TV writing that’s been described as Seinfeld-meets-Curb Your Enthusiasm (both shows Jeff worked on). Episode ideas began as loose outlines, with lots of room for on-the-fly tweaks once scripts got up on their feet — hence the show’s often spontaneous feel. And, perhaps most importantly, it evolved from being a show about a trashy fantasy football league to a show about a bunch of friends who had known each other for 15 years. (And all the complexities those relationships entail.) The League may not be remembered as FX’s best comedy, but it helped prove the network was no one-hit comedy wonder on the heels of It’s Always Sunny, no doubt helping to pave the way for some of the other wonderfully deranged and weirdly specific series that came in its wake. -- Sean Fitz-Gerald
Created By: Noah Hawley
Starring: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin
First Aired: February 8, 2017
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: 1 nomination (for Cinematography), 0 wins
When it was time for FX to join other cable networks in making a comic book adaptation, it made sense to tie things in with Fox’s X-Men universe of films. But in the hands of Fargo creator Noah Hawley, Legion creates its own distinctive world around the omega-level mutant David Haller. It’s a world that blends futuristic technology, retro aesthetics, and trippy visuals. Its soundtrack seamlessly jumps between classical music, 1960s British rock, and more recent indie. Dan Stevens leads the cast with a performance that recalls the comic book character’s manic humor while still grounding it in the show’s world and story. A central question of the show was expressed early on by David’s love interest Syd: “What if your problems aren’t in your head?” It’s a question that Hawley deftly allowed both the audience and David to explore together: Is the man who would become known as Legion schizophrenic, powerful beyond belief, or perhaps a bit of both? Legion turned out to be the first and last television extension of the soon-to-be ending X-Men film universe, but we’re lucky FX could give Noah Hawley the chance to leave his memorable mark on that world. -- Chris Billig
Created By: Denis Leary, Peter Tolan
Starring: Denis Leary, John Scurti, Daniel Sunjata, Mike Lombardi, Steven Pasquale, Andrea Roth, Callie Thorne
First Aired: July 21, 2004
Last Aired: September 7, 2011
Emmys: 7 nominations, 1 win (for guest star Michael J. Fox)
In the wake of 9/11, Denis Leary responded to the sense of trauma, loss, and responsibility of first responders and their loved ones with Rescue Me, a show about firefighters dealing with PTSD after having lived through 9/11 and lost friends and co-workers. While Leary was a career comedian, Rescue Me was decidedly dramatic, and Leary was recognized as having stepped up to the gravity of his role. Across seven seasons, the show took its characters through issues like depression, trauma, alcoholism, and homophobia. -- Joe Reid
Created By: Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, Jonathan Krisel
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Louie Anderson, Martha Kelly
First Aired: January 21, 2016
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: 4 nominations, 1 win (for Louie Anderson)
If you'd have told me 10 years ago that I'd someday find Louie Anderson to be one of the most talented stars in a televised comedy-drama, I would have laughed in your face. And so would most of America. (Sorry, Louie.) But Anderson being cast in the role as Mrs. Baskets — the heart of the FX show Baskets — is just one of the many reasons why it stands out among its contemporaries. Baskets focuses on an unsuccessful clown named Chip (Galifianakis), who finally finds a place to practice his craft at the town rodeo. Throughout the seasons, his character is explored even more — and viewers learn that a lot of his actions are likely due to the fact that his upbringing was loving, yet dysfunctional.
Baskets flawlessly depicts both personal failure, and the feeling of coming home — especially when you once had an escape route. Even though Chip's relationship with his mother isn't always perfect, it's realistic — much like his chemistry with his twin brother Dale, also played by Galifianakis. Baskets features plenty of comedians, but the show's jokes are often situational and typically a little dark. It found a deserving home at FX, with its penchant for taking chances on comedies that don't follow the standard multi-camera set-up. Hopefully, it inspires more shows of its kind. -- Karen Belz
Created By: Dmitry Lipkin
Starring: Eddie Izzard, Minnie Driver, Shannon Woodward, Noel Fisher, Margo Martindale
First Aired: March 12, 2007
Last Aired: April 29, 2008
Emmys: 1 nomination (for Minnie Driver), 0 wins
There was a while there in the mid-2000s where basic cable dramadies fell into a formula: take one (1) actress currently being ill-served by Hollywood's feature films, give them one (1) dysfunctional family, and add one complicating element, either medical (Laura Linney's cancer In The Big C; Tara's multiple personalities in United States of Tara) or criminal (Nancy Botwin in Weeds; polygamy in Big Love). The Riches followed that formula to a T, with Minnie Driver and husband Eddie Izzard as Dahlia and Wayne Malloy, "Travelers" (Irish-American gypsies, essentially) running cons with their children, and ultimately scamming their way into the mansion and lives of a wealthy couple who died in a car accident. Watching the titular Riches barely stay ahead of the law and their ever-scheming kin was great fun, though the real show was Driver's performance as Dahlia, a tough, bruised woman fighting hard for the life she thinks her family deserves. -- Joe Reid
Created By: Louis C.K.
Starring: Louis C.K.
First Aired: June 29, 2010
Last Aired: May 28, 2015
Emmys: 22 nominations, 3 wins (two for Outstanding Writing)
Remember when Louie was considered the pinnacle of auteur-based Peak TV comedy? That was somewhere around 2012, when the show’s third season on FX best deployed its mix of slice-of-life comedy with weighty feeling and very, very good filmmaking. It was the season where David Lynch popped in for a delightful three-episode run about late-night TV and in which Louis C.K.’s sad-sack character has a joyous, cathartic finale meeting strangers in China. By Season Four, something changed, with critics noting a darker tone and iffy storylines depicting how the character creepily related to women. And though it continued to gain viewers and accolades, the wheels came off completely with the revelation of C.K.’s real-life sexual misconduct, which retroactively tainted the well-regarded series for good. FX would probably prefer we all forget about this show, but from 2010-2015, it was the network’s flagship comedy, earning it Emmy awards and broad critical recognition. It won’t be back. -- Omar Gallaga
Created By: Jermaine Clement
Starring: Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch
First Aired: March 27, 2019
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: none to date
For better or worse, the recycling of Hollywood intellectual property isn't stopping anytime soon. But for those looking for a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy pack of rote reboots and remakes, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than What We Do in the Shadows, FX's sublime small-screen take on Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s cult-hit vampire mockumentary from 2014. Many fans worried the TV show wouldn't live up to its inspiration, considering Clement and Waititi opted not to return as stars. But the good news is the duo did return behind the camera — to write, direct, and suffer through notes (God bless them). So their TV version keeps much of what you loved from the original concept, plus it adds a number of exciting developments. The show is still about roommates living in a Real Housewives-meets-vampire world, this time in Staten Island. The drama is still petty and absurd, but some moments feel delightfully dumber (such as when Novak's vamp has to clarify to Guillermo that, "Tonight is a good night for zee other guy, not me, to die"). In other words, once you start watching, it'll be hard to break free from the spell. -- SFG
Created By: Steven Levenson, Thomas Kail
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams
First Aired: April 8, 2019
Last Aired: May 28, 2019
Emmys: none to date
With the likes of Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda producing and Thomas Kail directing, Fosse/Verdon did not lack theater-industry chops. How it fared as television was a question with an occasionally shaky answer, especially in the early going. But the limited series found its feet when it lined up behind its best performance: Michelle Williams as the oft-overlooked but ultimately determined Gwen Verdon. Williams played multiple sides of Verdon's star, from her professional rigor to the myriad career disappointments she suffered to the youth traumas that occasionally plagued her. Verdon and Fosse's professional relationship was, to indulge in an obvious metaphor, a dance with both members taking the lead, so of course theirs was a love story that couldn't have gone conventionally. In the bigger picture, Fosse/Verdon is important because it showed that FX can pull off glossy Hollywood tell-alls without Ryan Murphy. -- JR
Created By: Kurt Sutter
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Mark Boone Junior, Kim Coates, Maggie Siff, Ron Perlman
First Aired: September 3, 2008
Last Aired: December 9, 2014
Emmys: 5 nominations, 0 wins
While the series would eventually wear out its welcome with critics, it's important to remember that for a small window — Season 2 and probably a bit before and after — Sons of Anarchy was operating on a high level of critical acclaim. The high drama of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club (Redwood Original, of course) made for incredibly addictive television. The conceit of Hamlet-in-a-biker-gang (though Sagal's Gemma turned out to be far more Lady Macbeth than Gertrude) was pretty irresistible, and the show set ratings records pretty continuously, especially though its later seasons. While FX would go on to even bigger ratings (and for more prestigious shows) later, Kurt Sutter's burly, violent ode to brotherhood and calling the women you love "old ladies" was a landmark in the network's history. -- JR
Created By: Ted Griffin
Starring: Donal Logue, Michael Raymond-James, Laura Allen, Kimberly Quinn, Jamie Denbo, Rockmond Dunbar
First Aired: September 8, 2010
Last Aired: December 1, 2010
If Sons of Anarchy was FX's intense, brooding, long-running ratings champion, Terriers was its chill, fun flash-in-the-pan that nobody watched. The precious few who did, however, got the pleasure of watching Donal Logue and Michael Raymond James as a pair of San Diego private detectives whose own shoddy personal lives dovetailed with the ransoms, blackmails, and kidnappings they had to solve. The cases were satisfyingly twisty, but it was the interplay between the two leads and the utterly sparkling dialogue — episodes were written by the likes of Leslye Hedland (Russian Doll), Angela Kang (The Walking Dead), and Tim Minear (American Horror Story — that won the show such a dedicated (though unfortunately not vast) set of fans. -- JR
Created By: Ryan Murphy
Starring: Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Judy Davis, Alfred Molina
First Aired: March 5, 2017
Last Aired: ongoing (?)
Emmys: 18 nominations, 2 wins
By the time we got to Feud, Ryan Murphy had already extended his FX empire to American Horror Story and American Crime Story, so there wasn't much doubt that he could spin the legendary enmity between Hollywood actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis into something golden. Pairing Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as the central rivals was perfect casting, and while the appeal was more narrow than AHS or ACS, the series was perfectly balanced between dishy camp (Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper; Jackie Hoffman as Crawford's loyal housekeeper; Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia De Havilland!) and a character-intensive look at two survivors of a Hollywood era that chewed women up and spit them out. -- JR
Created By: Stephen Falk
Starring: Chris Geere, Aya Cash, Desmin Borges, Kether Donohue
First Aired: July 17, 2014
Last Aired: April 3, 2019
You’re The Worst may have been more of a critical favorite than it was a benchmark for the network (after all, it was relegated to FXX after its first season). But after the series ended earlier this year, it is the one most deserving in the network’s history to find a resurgence in the afterlife of streaming platforms. Starring Chris Geere and Aya Cash as two Los Angeles jerks falling for each other despite their best efforts, the series was able to satirize romantic comedies while also being one itself -- at least for the most caustic among us. It was also a wise study of contemporary depression, delivering unsentimental compassion beneath its onslaught of barbarous wit. It’s the network’s “hidden in plain sight” gem. -- Chris Feil
Created By: Ryan Murphy
Starring: Dylan Walsh, Julian McMahon, Joely Richardson, Roma Maffia, Kelly Carlson
First Aired: July 22, 2003
Last Aired: March 3, 2010
Emmys: 18 nominations, 1 win (for makeup)
How quickly people have forgotten that Ryan Murphy’s FX reign began not with anthology series but with a sweaty tale of two plastic surgeons in Miami. Nip/Tuck would also be our first real taste with Murphy’s particular brand of silly excess that shouldn’t be taken too seriously — this was, after all, a show that had a two-season serial killer subplot, had Joan Rivers developing a semen-based skincare product, and showed us Vanessa Redgrave getting fingered. But the show also featured several boundary- and taboo-pushing subjects for television, including graphic gore during its plastic surgery sequences. It was one of FX’s first big blockbuster series, and the first time they showed how adult they were willing to go. -- CF
Created By: Rob McElhenny
Starring: Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito
First Aired: August 4, 2005
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: 3 nominations (all for stunt coordination), 0 wins
What at first seemed like a slightly meaner Seinfeld ensemble comedy set in a Philly bar got really weird really fast, with “The Gang” (including DeVito's Frank from Season Two on) getting into very stupid, often dangerous situations while ostensibly tackling issues such as racism, abortion, the U.S. drug war and gun control. Thirteen seasons later, through dips and peaks in quality, It's Always Sunny has remained remarkably consistent behind the scenes, with the same talented cast and showrunners on board. It became, against all odds, FX’s (or, sure, FXX’s) longest-running series.
And within that misanthropic sandbox, Dennis (Howerton), Sweet Dee (Olson), Charlie (Day) and Mac (McElhenney) have created memorable moments, from their low-budget, home-brewed Lethal Weapon sequels to the “Nightman Cometh” musical episode to last season’s stunning modern dance sequence, a reminder that there’s still plenty of life left in this old sitcom. -- OG
Created By: Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, Daniel Zelman
Starring: Glenn Close, Rose Byrne, Ted Danson, Tate Donovan
First Aired: July 24, 2007
Last Aired: April 19, 2010*
Emmys: 19 nominations, 4 wins*
*Damages aired an additional 20 episodes, across two seasons, on DirecTV, ending its run on September 12, 2012 and earning one further Emmy nomination.
Oscar-nominated actors taking a lead role on TV is pretty standard fare in 2019, but when Damages debuted 12 years ago, it wasn’t as common (particularly away from HBO). Glenn Close brought clout, gravitas, and Emmy awards to FX with her portrayal of Patty Hewes, a cutthroat high-powered New York City lawyer with plenty of blood on her hands and a killer pair of sunglasses. Joining Close across three seasons airing on FX were a slew of big names including Ted Danson, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Martin Short and Lily Tomlin. However, the greatest casting triumph was the relative unknown given the daunting task of facing off against Close. Wide-eyed Rose Byrne has since proven she is a comedy queen, but as Ellen Parsons, she was the perfect naive foil to Patty, in a storyline cutting between the past and present. The signature narrative gimmick eventually lost its sheen, but Byrne never failed to impress.
Each season focused on a case ripped from the headlines, with the Enron scandal and Madoff Ponzi scheme providing the backdrop to various legal battlefields. Despite the critical acclaim and multiple Emmy wins, sagging ratings led to FX cutting Damages loose. A few years down the line, ratings would not necessarily be the deciding factor for John Landgraf when killing or keeping a show. Not only that, but looking back, Patty and Ellen provided the foundation for characters such as Eve and Villanelle in Killing Eve. The legacy of Damages stretches far beyond FX. -- Emma Fraser
Created By: Noah Hawley
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, Martin Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Ewan McGregor, Carrie Coon, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
First Aired: April 15, 2014
Last Aired: ongoing (?)
Emmys: 51 nominations, 6 wins
By the spring of 2014, American Horror Story and True Detective had renewed our collective interest in anthology series, but Fargo's arrival that April arguably cemented the anthology as the decade's defining format. When you've got three iterations that work this well, you've got yourself a trend, and when you've got two of them on your network (as FX does), you've got yourself bragging rights as an industry leader.
True, each season of Fargo has been less coherent than the one before it, but it's still maintained an addictive balance of menace, comedy, and what-in-the-actual-hell surrealism. Half the fun of watching is waiting for the latest, insane structural wrinkle, whether it’s how alien spaceships disrupt a shootout or how a police officer's emerging lesbianism cures her inability to make sensor-operated doors open for her. And then there are the performances, which despite the many Emmy nominations they've garnered still feel underappreciated somehow. Billy Bob Thornton, Bokeem Woodbine, and David Thewlis are as terrifying as anything you'll see in a straight-up horror show. Allison Tolman, Ted Danson, and Carrie Coon embody a heart-twisting blend of decency and yearning. Martin Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, and easily 10 others do some of the best work of their careers. It’s enough to declare Fargo television’s most reliable outlet for astonishing acting. -- Mark Blankenship
Created By: Pamela Adlon, Louis C.K.
Starring: Pamela Adlon, Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward, Celia Imrie
First Aired: September 8, 2016
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: 2 nominations (both for Adlon), 0 wins
Three seasons in, it’s hard to pinpoint just one reason why Better Things has emerged as one of the best and most quietly revolutionary television shows of the past decade, but you can find a perfect one in the show’s pilot episode. As Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon, who also juggles producing, writing, and directing hats) checks on her daughters before going to bed, she’s stopped in her tracks by a text message from an old flame asking if she’s in town. As she responds, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” starts to swell in background as Sam slides to the floor and remembers them together, playful and in love. It’s the kind of needle-drop that most shows would save until a finale or big emotional climax, but not Adlon. She knows life doesn’t offer us neat, television-ready beats. She knows that sometimes a simple “hey” and Joni Mitchell is enough to bring a person to their knees.
As a former child-star, we see Sam hustling from job to job in the ever-changing entertainment industry, but we soon realize that the most important role in her life is that of mother to her three young daughters, Max, Frankie, and Duke. What makes audiences respond so strongly to the show is just how real it feels. Adlon is so attuned to the unexpected, romantic, and sometimes heartbreaking rhythms of life, and creates space not just for herself, but for her entire (mostly female) cast. This is a particular triumph for FX, a network known for being the home for more testosterone-driven shows such as The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Louie. Speaking of Louie, the presence of Louis C.K. looms over the world of Better Things, having served as co-creator, producer, and co-writer of all the episodes alongside Adlon for the first two seasons. After being released of his duties following sexual misconduct claims, many wondered what would happen to Better Things without C.K.'s creative input. An absurd worry, because Better Things has always been Adlon’s singular vision from the start, and the show has gotten even better and richer since his departure. -- Stephen Hladik
Created By: Adam Reed
Starring: H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Amber Nash, Chris Parnell, Adam Reed, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Lucky Yates
First Aired: September 17, 2009
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: 6 nominations, 2 wins
If any show could rival Veep with its trademark putdowns, it’s Archer. Created by animation veteran and evil genius Adam Reed (Frisky Dingo, Sealab 2021), this spy send-up thrives when its characters are at each other's throats. But just like HBO’s gold-standard satire, Archer is much more than just a half-hour stuffed with deplorable characters and blue humor. Reed originally pitched Archer as James Bond-meets-Arrested Development, which makes sense, with all the spycraft and both Walter and Greer in the main cast. But the real translation — and likely, the real reason we're ten seasons in — is that Archer, at heart, is a workplace comedy, where the characters' relationships have always been trump and the gunfire has always played second fiddle.
Archer helped usher in a new wave of what The New Yorker dubbed "dirtbag sitcoms," setting a precedent for BoJack and your other favorite garbage protags. It's created no dearth of memorable catch phrases ("phrasing!"). Every single episode is a gold mine of carefully planted Reedster eggs and esoteric history and pop-culture references — regularly dissected on the show's devoted subreddit. But perhaps best of all, as the show has evolved (with subtitles and themes ranging from Vice to Dreamland to 1999), it's never lost sight of where it came from.
While Archer wasn't FX’s first animated show, it was the first one that landed and became its cartoon crown jewel. It's the network’s Simpsons and South Park. And like its predecessors, it'll go down as one of the most impressive, hallowed, influential, and blisteringly funny animated sitcoms in TV history. -- SFG
Created By: Graham Yost
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Natalie Zea, Walton Goggins, Jere Burns
First Aired: March 16, 2010
Last Aired: April 14, 2015
Emmys: 9 nominations, 2 wins
At the intersection of Appalachia, the Old West, and Elmore Leonard you’ll find Justified, which from 2010-2015 told the tale of Raylan Givens, a Lexington, Kentucky-based U.S. Marshall whose cases inevitably drew him back to his troubled hometown of Harlan. The show starred Timothy Olyphant, who just a few years before had been firing off similarly “justified” shots in Deadwood, a show which shared a lot of DNA with this one. Givens is a spiritual successor to Seth Bullock, a lawman for whom due process was often an afterthought. And like so many of FX’s dramatic heros, Givens was a man of humble beginnings -- a coal miner made good.
It’s a dangerous game, attempting to depict blue collar life in red America without falling into stereotypes or condescension. Though it was presented in simpler times, Justified approached the matter with a steady hand, casting greats like Mykelti Williamson, Margo Martindale, Jeremy Davies and -- most notably -- Walton Goggins as holler residents dead set on protecting their own interests and keeping the rest of the world (with its smart phones and Amazon deliveries) out. And yet, as you watched them explain why their way of life -- including the avarice and murder parts -- is worth protecting, you sympathized. That is, until they threatened Givens. Then, the gun was drawn and all bets were off.
On a network packed with morally ambiguous protagonists who looked great in jeans, Justified stood out not just for its casting but for its light touch with story and dialogue. I’m hard-pressed, in fact, to think of another show that’s so deftly juggled poverty, drugs, violence, corruption, and betrayal without making itself feel like a slog. Much of that is thanks to the show’s relationship to Elmore Leonard, who created the Givens character and whose spirit pervaded the show’s 78 episodes. Any time things threatened to get too obvious, preachy, or bleak (and, folks, eastern Kentucky is bleak), Leonard’s ghost must have appeared in the writer’s room to keep things just weird enough, making for a remarkable dramatic alchemy we haven’t seen since. -- Eve Batey
Created By: Steven Canals
Starring: Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Billy Porter, Indya Moore, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Evan Peters, Kate Mara, James Van Der Beek
First Aired: June 3, 2018
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: none to date
You'll notice that Pose is all the way up here at number #6 before its second season even premieres. In just eight episodes, it already feels like the beacon of a new era for FX, for co-creator Ryan Murphy, and (possibly, hopefully) for television itself.
Part of that is owed to its radical inclusiveness. Other series have featured trans characters and trans actors, but Pose places multiple trans women (who are actually played by trans women) at the center of the story, charting the rise of their drag houses in 1980s New York. To make the narrative complete, it surrounds those women with a galaxy of LGBT folk, POC, ciswomen, and James Van Der Beek. That's exhilarating because while communities like this have existed in the actual world for a long time, they've never been so richly depicted on mainstream TV.
Plus -- and this is no small thing -- Pose is fun to watch. The house ball scenes alone deserve repeat viewings, if only because they give breakout TV star Billy Porter a chance to showcase why he's been a theater icon for so long. And the less-flashy family scenes are uniquely nourishing. Watching these characters build their lives together -- watching them love one another, even though mainstream society doesn't love them at all -- is good for the soul. Here's hoping the rest of TV takes note. -- MB
Created By: Shawn Ryan
Starring: Michael Chiklis, Catherine Dent, Walton Goggins, Michael Jace, Kenny Johnson, Jay Karnes, Benito Martinez, CCH Pounder
First Aired: March 12, 2002
Last Aired: November 25, 2008
Emmys: 6 nominations, 1 win (for Michael Chiklis)
It's tough to imagine the kind of sliding-doors universe where The Shield wasn't the first scripted drama FX ever produced. If it was somehow a less accomplished, less groundbreaking show, or one that didn't re-write the rules that NYPD Blue had written for cop dramas just a year before. While Tony Soprano got there first, The Shield's Vic Mackey cemented the 2000s as the Age of the Antihero. And Shawn Ryan's ambitious, character-intensive writing set the standard that all other basic cable dramas would be measured up to. Chiklis's surprise Emmy win for Best Actor in 2002 was FX's first Emmy and kicked down a door for massive success to come. -- JR
Created By: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr., John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, Nathan Lane, David Schwimmer, Darren Criss, Édgar Ramírez, Ricky Martin, Penélope Cruz, Cody Fern
First Aired: February 2, 2016
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: 40 nominations, 15 wins
It was absolutely inevitable that America would experience a weird nostalgia for the O.J. Simpson case. It was too much of a phenomenon in its time, intersecting too many of the country's obsessions (sports, sex, gossip, race, wealth, violence) not to be revisited. The most prominent incarnation of our O.J. nostalgia might have been a feature film or a podcast, and it very nearly was a documentary (the Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America). But when it comes down to it, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson was the O.J. revisitation we all gathered around. It completely re-framed the Simpson trial as we all thought we knew it, foregrounding the race, class, and gender issues, and casting Paulson's Marcia Clark not as the hated villain but as the doomed, chain-smoking hero.
To then have the series return in 2018 to tell the story of Andrew Cunanan and the murder of Gianni Versace, re-framing it not as a lurid gay-on-gay crime in one of America's most image-conscious enclaves but instead as a shattering portrait on the toxicity of American homophobia, was the icing on the cake. FX has become one of the very best platforms for quality television because it's been able to combine big, loud, often campy TV extravaganas and produce them well enough that you don't feel guilty for your pleasure. With American Crime Story, you're getting the absolute cream of the crop. This is FX's prestige franchise. -- JR
Created By: Donald Glover
Starring: Donald Glover, Zazie Beetz, Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield
First Aired: September 6, 2016
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: 22 wins, 5 nominations
Which Atlanta should we talk about first? How about the straightforward comedy that revels in the hijinks of nuanced and appealing characters? That's a great show, and we should praise it!
But we can't ignore the structurally audacious Atlanta -- the one that swerves suddenly into horror, satire, or action-movie-violence. That show is so tightly controlled that even when it’s disorienting, we trust it’s taking us somewhere great. So let's praise that one, too!
And don't forget the Atlanta that makes some of television's most incisive statements about being black in America. And the one that lets Donald Glover display his virtuosity as a writer, actor, director, producer, and (probably) craft services chef. It’s frankly amazing that one series can be so many wonderful things at once.
By putting this multi-faceted diamond on the air, FX has strengthened not only its reputation for nurturing auteurs, but also its knack for mind-expanding comedy. It looks quite sparkly in Atlanta’s shine. -- MB
Created By: Joe Weisberg
Starring: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Holly Taylor, Margo Martindale, Noah Emmerich, Frank Langella, Alison Wright
First Aired: January 30, 2013
Last Aired: May 30, 2018
Emmys: 18 nominations, 4 wins
An exploration of marriage, home, and faith disguised as a Cold War spy thriller takes the number two spot. The Americans was never a smash ratings hit, but from the first drumbeat of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” it connected with critics. Set in the 1980s, the premise was pretty simple, as two deep cover Soviet spies pose as Americans, using any means necessary to collect intel for the Motherland. Viewers already know who scored the Cold War “W”, however, it wasn't the winning that counted on this emotional battleground. Wigs, gunfights, and sex were all on the menu – it was the first show to portray a certain sex act on basic cable – but the explosive moments typically featured words and not weapons. Slow dread dominated, not Tom Cruise style running sequences (although there were a couple of those too).
Travel agents by day and KGB agents by night, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings portrayed the ebb and flow of a regular marriage that also happened to involve some less than conventional intimate moments. One was a tooth extraction that was shot like a sex scene – it is both as disturbing and hot as it sounds. Often saying so much without uttering a word, the term “Emmy Gasp” was born from Russell’s performance in the finale (a performance that somehow did not win an Emmy).
Sometimes awards are life support when viewing numbers are low, but the Emmys took considerably longer to acknowledge The Americans and its leads. Instead, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields cited the overwhelmingly positive reviews as a key reason as to why John Landgraf gave them so much space, to not only create the show they wanted, but also end it on their terms. Landgraf coined the term “Peak TV” at a TCA panel in 2015, so it is fitting that in this saturated market, FX has raised the bar for its critical offerings with The Americans as one of its most landmark of titles. -- Emma Fraser
Created By: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Emma Roberts
First Aired: October 5, 2011
Last Aired: ongoing
Emmys: 86 nominations, 16 wins
Surprising as this might be, there is every argument to be made that American Horror Story deserves the top slot. Both for what it's been, what it's become, and what it started as. People forget that the first season of American Horror Story began as a critical laughing stock. It was dismissed as campy, vulgar, nonsensical, excessive -- a runaway train of slapped-together horror tropes rotating around the hollow center that was the Harmon family. It was everything that had already turned people off of Murphy's Glee.
But throughout the first season, Murphy, Falchuk and their writing team stayed committed to everything that critics didn't like: the camp, the excess, the references, the sense that anything could happen at any time because reality had pretty much ceased to exist within the show's borders. Suddenly, people started to come around, audience numbers grew and grew, and Murphy's commitment to giving under-served actresses of a certain age (Lange! Bates! Bassett! Frances Conroy! Patti damn LuPone!) some of the juiciest parts they could ever tear into on TV meant that the Emmy Awards couldn't resist either.
Horror Story is a more influential TV series than most give it credit for, opening doors on cable for genre experimentation, sex, queerness, and, yes, violence. It also pretty much established the anthology series as the hot new drama format, changing, among other things, the Emmys forever. There may be series that you feel better about loving, but there is no denying that AHS is FX's flagship show. -- JR
TOPICS: FX, American Horror Story: Murder House, The Americans, Archer, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, Atlanta, Baskets, Better Things, Damages, Fargo, Feud: Bette and Joan, Fosse/Verdon, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Justified, The League, Legion, Louie, Nip/Tuck, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Pose, Rescue Me, The Riches, The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, What We Do in the Shadows, You're the Worst