Yet it seems to me that the television, especially in the cable realm, is at something of a crossroads. Formulaic fare such as 'Rizzoli and Isles' and splashy genre shows like 'True Blood' and 'The Walking Dead' have been big hits, and, after the cancellation of shows like 'Terriers' and 'Men of a Certain Age' and the end of 'Friday Night Lights,' it's hard not to wonder whether the golden age of character-driven drama is losing some of its luster. (Speaking of 'Terriers,' I'll get to a bit of news about the creator of that show in a bit.)
I defer to no one in my geek devotion (I managed to turn an interview with 'Terra Nova' executive producer Rene Echavarria into a discussion of a show he worked on ages ago, 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'). But at times lately, I have feared that during the next few years, we are in for an interminable deluge of predictable doctor-lawyer-cop fare and shows featuring wall-to-wall vampires, zombies, aliens and spectral apparations.
Here's the kind of thought that keeps me up at night (well, this and general insomnia): If the cable networks that are supposed to be nurturing thoughtful ideas, risky experiments and idiosyncratic visions are heading in these potentially limited directions, are there still going to be shows worth writing about?
Of course I think there will be. Every December, it's still pretty difficult to narrow down my roster of favorite shows to an annual Top 10 list. And you can file 'Game of Thrones' under the 'genre' category, but it's certainly as worthy of examination and devotion as 'Justified' or 'Mad Men.' Still, I wonder if for every attempt at a latter-day 'Buffy' or 'Battlestar Galactica,' we are going to get 10 derivative time-wasters or creative flame-outs.
In any event, it's hard not to notice something of a tectonic shift in the cable realm these days, as the networks known for pushing the boundaries come up against the challenges of an ever-expanding array of channels and platforms, distracted consumers and the possibility of cord-cutting. And the way FX has responded to the current television landscape may be indicative of where things are heading.
The network, which began rewriting the basic-cable rule book almost a decade ago with 'The Shield,' has had its share of challenges and successes in the last year or two. 'Sons of Anarchy' and 'Justified' have done very well ratings-wise and have garnered many awards nominations as well, and the network's comedy brand, which is only a few years old, is thriving ('Wilfred,' 'Louie' and 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' have all been renewed for additional seasons). Still, the dramas 'Terriers' and 'Lights Out' -- both of which bore all the hallmarks of the kind of cable dramas that have done all right in the post-'Sopranos' era -- struggled and were ultimately canceled.
During his executive session at the Television Critics Association press tour on Saturday, and in an interview later that day, FX president John Landgraf talked about the challenges and changes that have affected the cable arena in the last few years. According to his research, at this time last year, there were 75 scripted cable series in existence, and this year there are 101. And that's in addition to the dozens of comedies and dramas the broadcast networks pump out every year.
"So it's incredibly hard to have the broad American audience even know a new original scripted series exists, and in that environment, you have to try to find concepts that are noisy," Landgraf said during his Saturday executive session with critics.
"How do you sell subtlety in a market with 200 original series? You can't," he said later that day in an interview. "I think it's fine to a make a subtle show. But I think it has to be a subtle show with an unsubtly bold, conceptual hook. I think if you make a subtle show with a subtle conceptual hook -- you know, the audience is just too jaded. They are too hungry for something that feels fresh and original to them."
On Saturday, FX presented a panel on 'American Horror Story,' a new drama from 'Glee' co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk that doesn't exactly have an enigmatic title or premise (it's about a family that moves into a haunted house, and the cast includes Connie Britton, Jessica Lange and Dylan McDermott). The network also just completed principal photography on a pilot for 'Powers,' an adaptation of the superhero-flavored comic book series by Brian Michael Bendis. (The third pilot FX made this year is the Nashville organized-crime drama 'Outlaw Country.')
"I went through my same thing that you're going through, which is 'Gosh, does this begin the end of the kind of golden age of freedom?'" Landgraf said in the interview. "And I said, no. What it says is, you've got to change with the times, the evolving times."
And that may involve "noisy" concept or a familiar idea with an unfamiliar twist. As Landgraf noted, part of the reason 'Justified' works so well is because it takes a very recognizable American archetype -- the solo gunslinger or the cowboy -- and puts him through an unusual character journey.
"You know, all the way from Tony Soprano to Walter White, with everything that we'd put on the air and other people had put on the air, [shows like] 'Dexter,' I was like, 'Eh,'" Landgraf said of the post-'Sopranos' and 'Shield' anti-hero trend. "Here was this idea of taking a hero, a white-hat hero... if you think about all the characters that Gary Cooper played or that Clint Eastwood played (at least in his law enforcement movies) or that John Wayne played, those characters never were forced to examine their own violent impulses. Never. That it was just seen as righteous and justified, if you will. And I thought, 'Wow, that's really interesting, to take a character [and make him do that].' That wasn't the intent of the original character that Elmore wrote. That was an elaboration that ['Justified' executive producer] Graham [Yost] came up with. To me, that was, 'I haven't seen that.' I haven't seen an American white-hat iconic cowboy character be forced to reckon with the antecedence of his own rage and violence."
Landgraf added that, despite the fact that 'Lights Out' and 'Terriers' ended, he'd still be happy to work with any of those actors or creators if the right opportunity arose. And for fans of 'Terriers,' there's a bit of good news: Landgraf confirmed that 'Terriers' co-creator Ted Griffin is working on a pilot script for FX.
He didn't want to say too much about the project, which Griffin is working on with his brother Nick ('Terriers' executive producer Shawn Ryan isn't involved in the new venture). The Griffins' show is just at the script stage at this point; a pilot hasn't been ordered.
"It is very fluid because Ted and his brother are in the process of creation, so I'd hate to say something and then have Ted call me and say, 'Well, you know, actually it's morphed from the last time we talked,' Landgraf said. "I can tell you that I'm really excited about it and I'm really happy that Ted [returned to FX]. He told me it was the best creative experience he'd ever had and I'm really thrilled that he came back."
Other than that, Landgraf said that he wants to expand the network's comedy roster to include another animated program and a show from a writer/creator of color.
For FX, "it's always been about the frankness and depth of the character's point of view," he noted. It hasn't been about their gender or their ethnicity. But it's this odd artifact that there have been so many white males. Imagine the version of 'Louie' that Dave Chappelle would do or Richard Pryor would have done and that Chris Rock would do. So if I had my druthers, I would have a female voice, a Latino voice, an African-American. I would have a voice representing every part of the American experience. It's just so hard to find somebody [who can do it all]. I mean Louie [C.K.] literally edits, does the music, directs, writes, acts. That's a rare find."
"Drama-wise, I just want to find things that have never been done before," Landgraf said. "I just want to find things that don't exist on television."
I'm OK with that. As long as there are no vampires.
I'll be on vacation the next couple of weeks. See you Aug. 22.
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