How did all of our favorite shows (Fargo, Archer, Louie, The Americans, The People v. O.J. Simpson…) and all that Emmy love come out of one place, one network, and possibly one man? Alice Gregory went looking for the reason FX is killing it.
I am a 29-year-old consumer of American television and I have a problem. I, like you and probably everyone else we know, watch a ton of TV: hours and hours and hours a week. I am often in danger of handing literally all of my discretionary time over to streaming shows.
Until a few years ago, I wondered if I was doing something stupid by not working in TV—in the same way that I worry if I'm doing something stupid by not having a job at a start-up. Like I'm the one person in 1849 Sacramento who's “just not that into gold.” We hear every day pretty much how TV's gotten better over the past 15 years, how it's taken seriously as an art form now, how it's our Dickens. Blah blah blah. What's said less is how television has also gotten bigger—there is literally just more of it. The number of scripted shows nearly doubled between 2009 and 2015, to 400-plus. I watch a lot of this stuff—I think I can safely say too much—and still it feels like I'm missing out.
The excess is indulgent—and anxiety-inducing. Some weeks my consumption verges on career-disabling. I use my parents' Netflix account and the HBO log-in that belongs to the mother of a friend's friend's ex-girlfriend. Sometimes I pay, sometimes I pirate, sometimes my husband will do something on my computer that I don't understand and—poof!—there it is, whatever I asked him to get. Though I sometimes barely know what I'm watching or where I'm watching it, I'm confident that it's all pretty good.
Last summer, John Landgraf, the 54-year-old head of FX, named this condition—this blessed/cursed feeling and this glut of “pretty good”—that I and everyone I know had internalized but never really interrogated. He called it “Peak TV.” “There is simply too much television,” Landgraf said during a press tour. People glommed on to this idea, comforted to receive such a correct-feeling diagnosis from a bona fide expert. It was strange, though, everyone thought, that the person credited for naming the biggest problem with television also happened to be making some of the very best of it.
Television has also gotten bigger—there is literally just more of it. The number of scripted shows nearly doubled between 2009 and 2015, to 400-plus.
This spring and summer, I talked again and again with Landgraf about that tension. Landgraf is responsible (along with an impressive team) for everything on FX. It's an odd thing—grouping shows together as though they all hang out in the same locker room and have anything much in common beyond the executives at the top. And yet on a night in late March, all those distinct faces and voices from the fictional universes of FX were colliding at a bowling party, unofficially celebrating the unexpected success of The People v. O.J. Simpson. It had an uncanny, almost sci-fi quality to it. Matthew Rhys from The Americans was chatting with the show's head writers; It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Danny DeVito sat wedged between two leggy blondes at the bar. If one listened carefully, swaths of ambient noise revealed themselves to be made up of the voices from Archer. The stars of O.J. were everywhere, too. Cuba Gooding Jr. posed for selfies with fans. Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, and Courtney B. Vance laughed and drank and ate. The journalist Jeffrey Toobin, upon whose book the limited series was based, wandered between tables laden with kebabs. And meandering past a center lane, in a kind of metaphysical, self-made seclusion, was Landgraf, besuited, drink in hand. He did not pick up a ball that night, though he is, according to all his colleagues and even himself, a pretty good bowler. “That's my curse,” he later said, smiling. “I'm pretty good at a lot of things.”
FX was, undeniably, having a moment. And it was funny to see it expressed in real-live physical space. Though more TV was being made than ever, FX seemed to have found a way to cut through. (In July, that point was made quantifiably: FX garnered more Emmy nominations than any network besides HBO.) Landgraf and FX were doing something with their culture of creativity that was turning FX into practically a one-stop solution to the problem—to my problem—of “Peak TV.” What a tidy fix. I wanted to know what their secret was.
There's a certain irony to the fact that the guy who delivered the industry's most headline-worthy statement in recent memory is himself inclined toward neither superlatives nor showmanship. Landgraf has been called “the mayor of TV,” a designation that implies public-facing ambition and tactical ascendancy. But in person—and practice—he's less city politician than suburban dad. His speech is punctuated with seemingly nonstrategic but still squirm-inducing pauses, and he radiates an eerie calm. It is impossible to imagine him honking in traffic or yelling at an automated phone message or even getting agitated over nontrivial, professionally relevant things like ratings or reviews. An assistant in Landgraf's once described him to me as “intellectually intimidating but completely approachable socially.” The top 11 executives at FX have worked for Landgraf for a combined 107 years. And since he joined the network in 2004, not a single creator of a single show has been fired or replaced. Landgraf (who premiered six new series in the past year) has read drafts of every script and watched rough cuts of every episode that's ever made it to air.
Landgraf's way of doing business—characterized by his loyalty and his counter-intuitive investment in the odd men out—is a philosophy born of his own life. The only child of two itinerant gospel musicians, Landgraf was born in Detroit in 1962 and didn't live at the same residence for three consecutive years until high school. The family moved often while Landgraf's parents pursued graduate degrees, and he describes his boyhood as unhappy, salved mostly with books. “I was often an observant outsider,” he told me.
Landgraf's adulthood has resembled something of a self-caricatured corrective: He has lived in Los Angeles now for 31 years, 18 of them in the same house, and made a career (developing shows like Friends and The West Wing before FX) out of providing economic, creative, and emotional support to writers who in all likelihood think of themselves as observant outsiders, too. He runs FX according to the idea that the best TV is more likely to germinate from an environment of safety than of chaos. Despite the myths of creative genius, for every artist with an abusive stepmother or teenage drug addiction, there's another who watercolored in his bedroom between deliveries of crustless PB&Js. Landgraf doesn't coddle, but he believes wholeheartedly in the efficacy of the sandwich-supplying method.
“If I have any role in the creative process at all, it is to simply remind the writer of what it is she or he wanted to achieve from the beginning and have very detailed conversations about how they're achieving that,” he elaborated. “You see what kind of work comes out when a person, instead of encountering resistance, encounters support. Over and over again, I have seen extraordinary things. Extraordinary things.”
The most famous example of Landgraf's commitment to removing barriers is a bargain he struck with Louis C.K. while negotiating Louie. C.K. had asked FX to increase its offer (a modest amount for a pilot order) but was swayed when Landgraf agreed to give him complete creative control. The result was a first season of television lauded for its singular vision and execution—one of the most uniquely original series to air anywhere even mildly mainstream.
More recently, Donald Glover, whose new series, Atlanta, premieres this month (see page 126), said that he did not want to create a show within the constraints of a traditional whiteboard-lined writers' room, so Landgraf enthusiastically allowed operations to be based out of Glover's own house in L.A. Glover was brand-new to the production side of television—he had never made a single TV episode from behind the camera. In fact, nearly half of the series that Landgraf has shepherded onto air at FX were created by people who had never before made television.
He says he prefers it that way: “Usually in this world, when you're in that position, you run into wave after wave of resistance. Because you have to prove yourself. But when that type of talented person meets someone who is willing to invest real support and resources behind them? It's like watering a flower: You just watch it grow and explode. It's exciting.”
“If we really, really went deep into the point of view of a lot of different people and relentlessly allowed them to pursue that, would those shows then end up having some common thread that could be united?”
Landgraf's own reserve can be seen in the shows he picks to pursue. “TV is so inflated with its own self-worth right now,” he said. “It's so pretentious about its greatness.” Unlike some other networks that shall go unnamed, FX does not seem to be operating under the mistaken assumption that Low Winter Sun is a good thing to call a series or that a Ventura County investigator should be named Antigone Bezzerides and say things like “The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands.” He gets that grandiosity isn't the same thing as ambition.
“Part of what people want from TV is a passive experience. They want to be able to tune out,” Landgraf said. “I don't know if you've ever eaten at a three-star prix fixe restaurant three days in a row, but when you're done with that, all you want is a piece of pizza. You don't want to sit and savor and treat it seriously. You just want to eat something when you're hungry.”
But how do you know what kind of pizza? You could poll a bunch of hungry people. You could just give them Domino's and assume they'll eat it, anyway. Or you could find the most talented, most enthusiastic, most innovative pizzamakers in the country and let them do whatever they want in the kitchen. They'll come up with some bizarre pies, but some people will be super into them. The people will come back for more; they might even like them more than the sous vide whatever served at the three-star place.
“The classic notion of a brand is something that is defined and imposed from the top down—these are our colors, this is the tone—but we thought it would be interesting to go in the other direction, from the bottom up,” Landgraf said. “If we really, really went deep into the point of view of a lot of different people and relentlessly allowed them to pursue that, would those shows then end up having some common thread that could be united?”
If FX is a home for specific points of view, it's Landgraf's job to choose which of them we'll learn to love. Historically, the network was devoted to the elaborate realization of hyper-masculine fantasies. Its initial forays into programming included The Shield (a four-man anti-gang unit of the LAPD enforces vigilante justice), Rescue Me (firemen deal with PTSD in post-9/11 New York City), Sons of Anarchy (members of an outlaw motorcycle club run firearms throughout the sun-scorched West), and Archer (a spy solves international crimes while offending everyone on earth).
Only in the past few years has the network begun to branch out from its testosterone-soaked fare. It's not like the shows have gotten feminized, but they have gotten, for lack of a better word, weird. Lots of unsubtitled Hungarian on Louie; Zach Galifianakis playing a classically trained clown on Baskets; Pamela Adlon's Better Things, the first FX series with a sole female showrunner, about a single mom doing her best to raise a family—not exactly avant-garde, but a far cry from her role as C.K.'s dirty-joke-trading sidekick.
Ryan Murphy, who for years had been an outlier at the network with his Lady Gaga-laced self-conscious camp, is an example of a writer whose particular perspective Landgraf has underwritten repeatedly. Before creating O.J. for FX, Murphy made Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story, shows that epitomize Landgraf's definition of “success” (“That's somebody's favorite show. That's a show that wouldn't exist if you didn't back it”), which he considers different from “non-failure” (“Okay, you did something pretty good and people are watching it”). Murphy had been seen as a TV outsider—too gay, too pop, too Glee—but his bizarre and particular mind is the kind that Landgraf is always searching for.
Murphy, like a lot of other people at FX, explicitly frames his relationship with Landgraf as one between petulant child and stern, but righteous, father. They came to the network at roughly the same time, and almost immediately Murphy was fighting with Landgraf over notes provided from the broadcast-standards division. Unlike previous managers, Landgraf refused to indulge Murphy. “He basically told me to just knock it off,” Murphy recalled, laughing.
Today, Murphy speaks of Landgraf with a kind of cautious gratitude, as though terrified to imagine his career without him. When I visited the Fox lot, he ushered me into his office and gestured for me to take a seat in an armchair. “Gosh, what can I say about John?” he asked, settling himself into a sofa. And then he began.
“John's parameters as both a human being and a runner of business are very clear. And most people in this town are not like that. They give you the runaround; they can't just tell you the truth, because they're afraid you won't come back or you won't like them anymore.” Murphy spoke of Landgraf as though his insights were ones arrived at only after years of psychic pain; his praise was cautionary. “Don't underestimate John when he's been crossed. He has a very strong moral center: This is how you should behave in the world; this is how the world should be ordered; this is the right behavior, and this is the wrong behavior.” Murphy was perfectly still. “He doesn't yell, but he can annihilate you with his intellect and make you feel like a really shitty, bad person.… Most acts of anger feel reactive. His are set back and thought through. He's not trying to pick a fight, he's trying to change your behavior in the future.”
The conversation was a bit like listening to a Marine credit basic training for conditioning his very soul. At one point, Murphy predicted that Landgraf would be “the last gentleman standing” and then called him “a Mount Rushmore-like figure in the TV industry.” He shook his head every few seconds, as though re-registering his indebtedness each time anew. “What people want in this business is just someone who fucking tells it straight. Maybe that's the secret of John,” he said. “And me having this therapy session with you,” he added.
“Sometimes you have every element of a good show but it just doesn't jell, and sometimes you have shows that on paper look really problematic and then they're remarkable.”
Beyond the identification of singular vision and a stern but encouraging paternal hand, I was still having trouble understanding what it was that enabled Landgraf to steer the network toward the things that audiences most desire.
Landgraf thinks about this question a lot. He embraces it. “People don't know what they want,” he often says, citing Star Wars and Game of Thrones as examples of blockbusters that were only obvious in retrospect. Even Landgraf himself doesn't know what he's after until he reads a draft of a script, sees a cut of a pilot, eats a sandwich with a potential showrunner and finds that he likes the guy—trusts him, can laugh with him, gets good vibes. That he admits that there is no overarching, genius, master theory to picking a great show besides a gut feeling and good judgment is one of the simple things that make him so successful.
During one of our conversations, Landgraf asked me if I'd ever seen the movie Amadeus. I told him I had. “Okay, then,” he replied. “Salieri destroys Mozart, right? I watch that movie and I think, ‘Wow, that's so sad.’ The tragedy is that nobody can recognize how good Mozart is as well as Salieri can; he can see his genius better than anyone else. Salieri wrote some decent compositions in his day, but nothing survives that we still listen to because he just wasn't that good. That's how I feel about myself. I'm good, I'm really good as a writer and director and dramaturge, but I'm not as good as Denis Leary or Ryan Murphy or any of the people making shows for FX. And wouldn't it have been great if Salieri used every bit of his mind and motivation to help Mozart instead of trying to bring him down? I genuinely think that what I do is the best use of my abilities. It's a better use of my time. I could have written; I could have created shows myself, and they would have been good, but they would not have been great, and I really do think that what we're making right now is great.”
I spoke to Landgraf just hours after the 2016 Emmy nominations were announced. The network led with The People v. O.J. Simpson, Fargo, and The Americans, and its 56 were second only to HBO, which has had original programming for decades longer. Landgraf was in a good mood. And though he didn't boast, he also didn't seem particularly surprised by the morning's results.
I was curious to hear how a specific show, pitched in 2010 or 2012 or whenever, was transformed, incrementally, into an Emmy nominee in 2016. In his own gentle way, Landgraf refused to answer the question. But he was eager to dive into The Americans.
Though Landgraf is intimately involved in all the network's shows, he takes special interest in some. The Americans began in 2012, when Landgraf took a lunch with a former CIA officer named Joe Weisberg, who had pitched him an '80s spy show. “I wanted to get a sense of who he was,” Landgraf recalled. “So much of this hinges on the character of the creator: their steadfastness, their maturity, their willingness to learn. The showrunner has to bring out the best in literally every person who is working on the show.” Landgraf had a hunch that Weisberg would get along with an old friend of his who had decades' worth of producing experience. He introduced Weisberg to Joel Fields, and now they are inseparable writing partners. Once the show was green-lighted, it was Landgraf who suggested Keri Russell for the lead, approved all subsequent casting choices, and gave multiple rounds of notes for every cut of the pilot, down to the score.
“That first season, when we were still trying to find the voice of the show,” Weisberg said, “so many of the notes from John basically boiled down to: Push to find something unique and not homogenized. The big question from the beginning was: Do we turn this into a sexy, action-y, violent spy show, or do we dig into something that has a more esoteric heart? The constant message from him and his team was to explore, to not be afraid, to really find what's special about this show. Which, of course, doesn't mean run away from the pulpy or exciting aspects but, you know, just don't do those things because you think you have to chase an audience or ratings.”
“What makes us good in this business is [knowing] that there's a point where our control ends and something magical begins—or, frankly, ends.”
Landgraf isn't ideologically opposed to those things; he just doesn't think they're efficient means to good TV—or profit. “It's not a jet engine, where a good engineer can take it apart and stress-test the pieces. There are too many feedback loops inside this process,” he said. “You can't do this perfectly; it's just too subtle a challenge. Sometimes you have every element of a good show but it just doesn't jell, and sometimes you have shows that on paper look really problematic and then they're remarkable. To be honest, I never know. I've been doing this for 30 years, and I just don't know. I've picked up some shows that have failed, and I haven't picked up some shows that have succeeded.” (Landgraf passed on Breaking Bad, to name one.) “It took me a while, to tell you the truth, to accept the notion that I was the person in this chair, the one making these decisions. I hated for a long time that I couldn't do this job perfectly.”
Landgraf spoke slowly and deliberately, with a confidence complicated, sentence by sentence, by humility. It's a rare quality in people in the entertainment world, but his speech is so fluent that it preempts the need for paraphrasing. Like when, mid-conversation, his childhood encounters with organized religion became evident and enviable. Given enough time, he began talking about television as though it is literally divine.
“What makes us good in this business is our acknowledgment that there's a point where our control ends and something magical begins—or, frankly, ends. Part of the job is so rational and quantitative and can be described, and I've thought for 30 years now about how to be good at it, and then there's a black box beyond the data, beyond the knowable. It's a weird thing to say, ‘Get good at something that's beyond your control,’ but it's true. There's a kind of graciousness and unfettered hopefulness. The job is to link this ineffable, even airy-fairy, stuff with the hard-nosed, business-minded requirements of the job. Because, look, FX is a business. HBO is a business. Netflix, Paramount, these are businesses. And there's a tendency for the story, the ineffable, to be subordinated and put in service of business. But I've been trying to do the opposite, to subordinate the business to the artist. And I do think it's the best way to meet the goals of the shareholders and my bosses. I have to be incredibly buttoned-up on the business side to make this work. If my attitude was, ‘Screw the business,’ somebody else would be here, and they very well might have less heart, less respect for the stories, and this stuff wouldn't be getting made.”