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The man who makes the world’s best TV

Box baron

Gady Epstein examines how a small cable network came to make the best television in America

Gady Epstein examines how a small cable network came to make the best television in America

Gady Epstein | October/November 2016

In the history of television, there has never been so much of it. Last year 417 original shows were broadcast on American television alone, 200 more than five years earlier. Many of them are formulaic dross. But there has also never been so much brilliant television as we have now. Most of it is in the United States. Intense competition in Hollywood, backed by billions of dollars of investment, has produced so many cinematic dramas and inventive comedies that it is impossible to keep up with them all.

It is easier to judge who makes the best, most interesting TV. It is not the data-savvy folks at Netflix, though they certainly win the prize for making the most TV. It is not the artistic patrons at HBO, though the pay-TV channel has “Game of Thrones” and remains the benchmark for historical greatness.

No, the best shows on TV right now are on FX, a basic cable network owned by 21st Century Fox.

FX sees itself as an anti-Netflix. John Landgraf, the network’s president, has famously declared that we are approaching “Peak TV” – there is too much of it, and too many programmes are clones of previous hits. Not surprisingly, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, disagrees. His company will be making even more TV. But the two have subtly different objectives: one wants to command our attention, the other wants to command our respect.

Since the start of 2015, FX has been host to the most critically acclaimed limited series (“Fargo”), the most acclaimed serial drama (“The Americans”), one of the most critically acclaimed comedies (“Louie”) and a highly praised and popular phenomenon (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”). According to scores from Metacritic, a website that aggregates critics’ reviews, FX at the moment is better than every one of the big names: cable outlets such as HBO, Showtime and AMC – the network of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” – as well as the video-streaming services, Netflix and Amazon. In July FX won more Emmy nominations than Netflix. In August it was the biggest winner at the Television Critics Association awards.

FX has managed this with less money and a less attractive platform than Netflix and HBO, which, unlike FX, have no commercial breaks. In bidding for shows that everyone wants, FX is at a disadvantage. HBO outbid FX for “True Detective”, an ambitiously conceived procedural show that was a critical and popular success in its first season. FX also lost out on “Master of None”, a beloved comedy, and “The Crown”, a highly anticipated series portraying the life of Queen Elizabeth II. In each case, it was outbid by what Landgraf calls “shock and awe” offers from Netflix.

FX compensated by going for shows that would not be obvious hits. This alone distinguishes the network from many of its competitors. The video-streaming companies collect data on viewing habits, which helps them decide what shows to buy and how much to spend on them. Broadcast networks use audience tests and the templates of past hits to design future ones.

In the mid-1990s Landgraf was a young executive at NBC, where he saw NBC’s then parent company, General Electric, send in a “crack team” to revamp the process for developing hit shows. “GE had some of the best linear thinkers in the world,” Landgraf says, but their talents were better suited to making jet engines than TV shows. The results were programmes like “Caroline in the City” and “Suddenly Susan”, he adds, “clones of prior successes that lacked the originality of the first instance.” NBC, which had been the number-one network for years with hits like “Seinfeld” and “Friends”, began to slip.

Landgraf wants the inverse of the back-solved hit, which begins with a successful genre and flows from there. And he is willing to take the risk that few people will watch, at least to begin with. “The Americans” is a period drama set in the 1980s about a pair of KGB agents who live in the United States as a married American couple with children. It is less a spy story than an intimate excavation of human relationships placed under extraordinary stress. “I can tell you why it’s not a hit, in quantitative terms,” Landgraf says. “The most commercial version of the spy genre is one in which the spy is a super-hero and there are no karmic or moral consequences, and the spy can basically defy physics…‘The Americans’ is the polar opposite of James Bond.”

The second season of “Fargo” would also be hard to find elsewhere on TV. It is a darkly comic noir piece set in the 1970s in which a local family mob is fighting against a hostile takeover by a much larger out-of-town syndicate, a metaphor for a corporate roll-up. With a large ensemble cast and multiple story threads, it is easy to imagine such an ambitious work running out of control or failing to get the support of a network. FX executives were indeed worried, even more so after they saw the original cuts of the first two episodes, which Noah Hawley, the showrunner, admitted were not a success. He re-shot, re-cut and made it work.

A graduate in anthropology, Landgraf has a professorial demeanour, and is prone to deliver long discursive lectures on storytelling, heroes and villains, and the larger question of good and evil. When assessing projects, he focuses on the creator’s intent, and presses writers to think about how to deepen themes in their scripts. But he also tells them to feel free to ignore him.

Joe Weisberg, the creator of “The Americans”, says Landgraf suggested that the spy husband should be more in love with his spy wife than she is with him. That tension became essential to the drama from the first episode. In “The People v. O.J. Simpson” a pivotal speech given to Simpson by his lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, came out of a conversation with Landgraf, says Ryan Murphy, a star Hollywood showrunner and producer. “I would consider him to be a great writer who doesn’t write,” Murphy adds. When Hawley signed a deal with FX to produce more shows, he called Landgraf first to make sure he was staying with the network.

Some people in Hollywood bristle at the notion that such “high-touch” methods translate into better shows. FX may just be on a hot streak, and Landgraf may get too much credit. Maybe that makes Netflix the smart one. In addition to making its own shows, it looks to buy rights to the best ones made elsewhere. Recently, Netflix did just that, paying a huge, undisclosed sum for the right to stream “The People v. O.J. Simpson” to subscribers around the world.

The numbers must say it’s worth the money.

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