“The World’s First Living Television Network”.
That was the tagline for FX – at the time it was stylized fX – when the channel debuted in 1994. It’s the kind of buzzy yet vague claim that matched the young network’s self-image at the time. Blocks of many different strains of live programming, from talk shows to junk appraisal shows, filled fX’s airtime. All the series were broadcasted from an apartment set, and all the shows prized one quality: interactivity.
Interactivity was the type of fluid idea that could set a network apart in terms of attitude in 1994, even though the concept is ubiquitous enough to be effectively meaningless today. The whole premise of fX back then seemed to be that anything could happen, and that the viewer somehow had agency over the events on the screen.
The great irony of fX’s trajectory bore itself out nearly ten years later, once the fledgling network, so connected and interactive (so alive!), had capitalized it’s F and become one of television’s premier locations for original scripted programming. After the gimmicky talk shows passed by, and the days of syndicated sitcoms and B-run movies after them, FX became a heavyweight in the last golden age of television. For all their achievements, even AMC was late to the basic cable party — behind FX.
For a few solid years, the network that once broadcasted out of a fake apartment and called themselves “the first living television network” was the only basic cable channel holding its own with premium giants like HBO when it came to scripted programming. As with any network, the time since FX first dipped its toe in the prestige pool has been uneven. There have been transcendent shows, and there have been duds. This list is about the former.
These are the 20 Best FX Originals Ever, Ranked.
20. The Strain
The Strain is emblematic of where FX was able to go by the time 2014 arrived. Over a decade into a successful run of originals, the network had the luxury of creating with names like Guillermo Del Toro, Chuck Hogan, and Carlton Cuse. That luxury extends to bringing ideas to life with a big budget and a dedicated production, even if their ideas were of gory horror, of vampires and disease.
The Strain tells the story of a world ravaged by a viral outbreak of vampirism, and the efforts of the show’s protagonists to stop the spread before it’s too late. The show has been well received by critics, but has struggled to find an audience, likely due to the niche nature of its premise. Still, The Strain is enjoyably even in quality, probably due to the experience of the folks handling the proceedings. Carlton Cuse is a TV veteran who is most known for show-running Lost; Guillermo Del Toro is, well, Guillermo Del Toro; and Chuck Hogan is an established author who wrote the novels The Strain adapts.
The show may not be groundbreaking or particularly notable. But it is a solid genre work by a team who knows how to make quality entertainment, and it’s a great place to find real scares on the small screen.
19. The Bridge
Critics – and the relatively small fan base still watching – were disappointed when FX didn’t renew The Bridge for its third season. Despite being both uniquely cinematic and dramatically compelling, the show struggled to accumulate viewers. After passable ratings in its first season, the numbers fell off a cliff in its second, and the show never returned to air.
The Bridge took place on the border between American and Mexico, pairing cops from each country together to investigate a body uncovered on the bridge between El Paso and Juarez. Diane Kruger and Damien Bachir played starring roles as an El Paso detective and Chihuahua state policeman, respectively. Despite its middling reception, The Bridge checked a bunch of boxes for FX. It was visually stunning. It took place in an environment that is both relevant at the moment and naturally ripe for dramatic conflict. It was well acted and well directed, and had all the polish and sheen of a prestige drama. Unfortunately, audiences disagreed, and we are left wondering what could have been.
Successful networks usually have at least one thing in common – they trust their best voices. AMC gave Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) full latitude with both of their shows, and the results were staggering. FX does this with creatives like Louis C.K. and the Always Sunny gang, who essentially have carte blanche to be as weird as possible.
Baskets fits this trend – the show, created by Louis C.K. and Zach Galfianakis, is a strange deadpan comedy about a clown school dropout who is relegated to clowning in a Bakersfield, CA rodeo. In its first and only (so far) season, the show was the most watched basic cable comedy premiere since 2014, likely because of the pedigree of the talent involved.
You might be starting to sense a pattern with FX’s programming model, and it will continue throughout the list: give projects to established stars with strong visions, and as long as they don’t bomb, leave them be. Baskets is living evidence of that idea.
Throughout its run as a destination for quality TV, FX has smartly bolstered their original programming with adaptations of other shows and films. Wilfred, for instance, was adapted from an Australian series of the same name. The show is also an example of another FX trend – snagging big screen talent to headline it’s offbeat programming.
Wilfred is about a man and his neighbor’s dog, who develop a friendly relationship. The wrinkle of course is that the man, played by Elijah Wood, sees the dog as a grown man in a dog costume. The show consciously eschewed any mainstream taste, bolting right to the most absurd and strange brand of humor possible.
It’s remarkable that FX — still a basic cable network, one that doesn’t have the luxury of subscription fees or over the top streaming services as a revenue – consistently has faith in its creators, even if what appears on screen is strange and inaccessible. But what you will see again and again on this list is that (for the most part) FX is a network that embraces the strange and niche – and they are often rewarded with audiences that are small but rabid.
16. The League
The League follows six friends in Chicago, each in varying stages of adulthood, from man child to father-of-two. The core of the group’s relationship, the gravity that keeps them all close, is their (preposterously small) eight-man fantasy league.
The show has an immediate hook for it’s demographic; in real life, fantasy football has become so commonplace that – and the show wrings this dry – even women play now! Along those lines, The League does feature some humor that’s pandering enough to be groan worthy. A show about an unrealistically small fantasy league populated by a bunch of 30-something bros risks coming across like your sixty-year-old dad asking for your Snap Chat username. Appreciate that you get it, Dad, but do you really get it?
The League is rescued, though, by its characters. Comedian Nick Kroll, indie darling Mark Duplass, and weirdo Jon LaJoie helm an ensemble that is both funny, and remarkably relatable. The League is one more feather in FX’s strangely effective comedy cap, and its 7 season run was an impressive one.
Terriers is the ultimate what-could-have-been show, and the only true commercial failure on this list. The show, produced by Shawn Ryan (The Shield), was a critical smash. It finished 2010 on top ten lists in Time, Hitfix, The A.V. Club, and IGN. It was almost universally well received, which made it all the more regrettable when the show was cancelled after its first and only season.
The series was set in Ocean Beach, a real life neighborhood in San Diego. It followed two friends running a private investigation office, off the books – one a hard drinking ex-cop, the other a rough around the edges ex-criminal.
So why was the show cancelled? For the most part, it was a sad intersection of unclear advertising and a strange, inaccurate title. The promo material centered on dogs, which the actual show didn’t feature; coupled with the equally misleading title, it was hard to guess what the program was actually about. As a result, Terriers had the worst ratings of any new FX drama at the time, coming in way behind other failures like Over There and Dirt. The audience just didn’t find it, which is why we’ll always wonder where the show’s ceiling truly lay.
There’s an interesting case to be made that despite having comparatively little residual cultural impact, Nip/Tuck was the most important program in FX’s formative years. The show featured some of the most highly rated single episodes in the network’s history, and was an anchor in the lineup for seven years.
Nip/Tuck was set around a plastic surgery center in Miami (and then LA), but was mostly about the dysfunctional personal lives of the firm’s two partners. Dylan Walsh plays Sean McNamara, the partner who was a family man that struggles to resist the temptation of attractive, available women he meets through work. Julian McMahon is Christian Troy, the partner who takes the work less seriously, but enthusiastically parlays his position into countless affairs with the opposite sex.
The show made an instant impact by unflinchingly portraying graphic surgical procedures, as well as edgy sexual drama. Nip/Tuck’s highly polished cinematic appearance was an instant signifier of its standing as an early prestige offering on a network not yet known for that. Even though it may not have the lasting impact of its contemporaries, Nip/Tuck was a bell weather, revealing the true potential of FX.
13. You’re The Worst
You’re The Worst is knocked down a few points on this list because of a technicality – it really only had on season on FX, before being transferred to the comedy sister network FXX. Still, it is one more capable and distinct comedy from a network that has produced a string of them.
The show follows a narcissist writer (Jimmy) and a hot mess public relations exec (Gretchen), two combustible personalities attempting to form a romantic relationship with one another. It’s a relationship that is both tragically flawed and uniquely suited for our time, two people who desperately seek romance but don’t really know what that looks like anymore. Quality supporting turns from Desmin Borges and Kether Donohue as the main couple’s best friends flesh out the world of the show and regularly occupy hilarious b-plots.
Like many series on this list, You’re the Worst subverts expectations. It’s a romance comedy starring two pessimistic, self-involved, and unlikable characters. But it works.
12. American Horror Story
American Horror Story, along with that undead sensation on AMC, answered the question of whether true horror could work on television with a resounding “yes”. In addition to carving out a place for scares on basic cable (the show was one of the largest cable debuts of 2011), American Horror Story helped reintroduce American audiences to the concept of anthology series. It had been decades since an anthology (each season a distinct mini-series) had made a true cultural imprint. Three years after American Horror Story, FX was repeating the model with Fargo, and HBO was launching True Detective.
Because it is an anthology, the show is tough to describe in full – each season is a different story, in a different setting. Quality can vary from season to season, dependent largely on viewer tastes. But across the board, some performances have stood out. Jessica Lange won two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for her performance for her work on the show, and Lady Gaga won a Golden Globe for her performance in season five.
Damages seems tailor made for its lead actress, Glenn Close. Close plays a big-time lawyer whose manipulative personality and singular determination has alienated those in her personal life. Close gave a tour de force performance in the show, winning two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for best actress. The show, despite being narratively compelling overall, was put over the top by her performance.
It should also be said that in Damages, Glenn Close was playing a difficult woman at a time when difficult men were the flavor of the decade. Damages launched in 2007, when names like Soprano, Draper, and McNulty were still synonymous with prestige television. On FX, though, there was a quality drama with a truly compelling lead female character. Not only was Close fantastic, but the show’s emotional hook was her relationship with a protégé, played by Rose Byrne. Damages exemplifies everything FX made a habit of doing right: it was risky, engaging, original, and most importantly, distinct.
10. American Crime Story
This might seem a high placement for a series with only one season under its belt, but American Crime Story so immediately captured national attention that it deserves to be here on promise alone. Like American Horror Story, American Crime Story is an anthology series. Only, instead of fictional hauntings and killers, Crime Story retells infamous American stories with style and compelling drama.
This list has already outlined one signature of FX – the big name. Glenn Close, Zach Galifianakis, Elijah Wood, Lady Gaga, and Louis C.K. have already been mentioned in entries. In the first season of American Crime Story, it was actors Cuba Gooding Jr., John Travolta and David Schwimmer who added their names to the network’s already impressive roster. Gooding Jr. played O.J. Simpson and David Schwimmer played Robert Kardashian, in a soapy retelling of one of the most famous news stories in modern history. Travolta played Robert Shapiro, Simpson’s real life lawyer.
The show worked like gangbusters on every level, garnering nearly unanimous critical acclaim. It also captured the internet conversation, so important for new series in 2016. Memes, live tweets, counts of how many times Schwimmer’s Kardashian despairingly said “juice”; it was a perfect storm of audience engagement and critical acceptance. That’s why, after only one season, American Crime Story ranks as high as it does on this list.
9. Rescue Me
Rescue Me debuted in 2004, nearly three years after the NYC terrorist attacks that rocked the world on September 11, 2001. This is relevant because – at least for the first few season – Rescue Me was one of the most poignant and unblinking investigations of what that day meant not only to the country but to the people who lived through it.
Denis Leary and Peter Tolan created and wrote the series, which was lauded and rewarded in its early days for writing (Emmy noms for outstanding writing) and acting (an Emmy nom for Leary in the lead role). The show’s dug deeply into survivor’s guilt, depression, drug addiction, and family dysfunction. Despite that, it also performed the magic trick of hardly ever being unfunny.
Rescue Me followed Leary as firefighter Tommy Gavin, but it was truly the ensemble cast of Gavin’s family and his firehouse that allowed the show to be so versatile. In an a-plot, Gavin could be battling suicidal thoughts; in the b-plot of that same episode, his shift-mates could garner true laughs by pranking each other, finding their way into strange sexual situations, sleepwalking, whatever.
We’ve used phrases like “early seasons” and “first few seasons” a few times in this recap. It isn’t that the show became bad or dropped off horribly. Only that Rescue Me never recaptured the heights of its early years, after becoming somewhat less grounded in reality and veering more into soap opera territory.
Archer is yet another statement of originality in the comedy slate at FX. The show follows Sterling Archer, a spy at a fictional agency run by his mother. As with most adult animated series (read: cartoons), Archer can be difficult to penetrate. It’s also very similar to Arrested Development, in that repeat viewings and long term dedication reward audiences with humor that isn’t readily apparent at first. In-jokes and call-backs abound, and the show is a whole lot smarter than it may at first appear.
Two things set Archer apart: first, is its flawless casting. H. Jon Benjamin voices the titular character. He is supported by actors like Judy Greer, Amber Nash, Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler, and – in perhaps the show’s most inspired choice – Jessica Walter, doing her Lucille Bluth routine as the matriarch of the show.
The second fantastic thing about the series is its refusal to be pinned down. Archer makes the most of animation as a tool, throwing out the playbook entirely to stay fresh. What started as a spy comedy became a cocaine-smuggling comedy, reverted back to a different spy comedy, and will soon transform again to a Los-Angeles detective comedy. Archer is reliably hilarious, but always fresh.
7. Sons of Anarchy
Sons of Anarchy die-hards will lament the show being this low on the list. Other, less initiated viewers will most likely wonder what the fuss is all about. That could be true with most shows, but Sons of Anarchy managed to cultivate a particularly dedicated fan base over its seven seasons on FX.
The show follows Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the president of an outlaw motorcycle club in California. Jax struggles with his role in the club, and the actions of the club, as the series progresses. Critical response was favorable overall, mostly centered on the show’s immediately engrossing plots and the performance of Katey Sagal as Gemma Teller Morrow, Jax’s mother.
The show’s audience was huge – Sons of Anarchy is still FX’s highest rated series of all time, and ratings only grew as the series wore on. It was consistently compelling, if uneven at times, and launched the career of Charlie Hunnam (who also has a considerably rabid fan base). There are no bad shows at this point, Sons of Anarchy just didn’t reach some of the creative heights of the shows ahead of it.
6. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
So far, we have listed FX comedies Wilfred, Baskets, The League, You’re The Worst, and Archer. In at least three of those cases – maybe all – the following statement is true: there has never been another comedy like them. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is perhaps more suited to that reality than any of the five series that preceded it on the list.
It is widely acknowledged that characters of Seinfeld were self-absorbed neurotics, who probably needed to be locked up. If that is true, the characters of Always Sunny need to be buried beneath the jail. The show follows a gang of friends (Mac, Charlie, Dee, Dennis, and Frank), who ostensibly run a bar in Philadelphia. “Ostensibly”, because the show is only ever tangentially related to the bar, a hole in the wall which also hardly ever has a customer.
“The gang” hatch some scheme or another each week. They are almost invariably offensive or taboo, and increasingly fantastical as the series goes on. That’s a good thing. Always Sunny is a testament to the value of creative control; the previously unknown Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton (who star in the show as well) created the show and have steered it whichever way they pleased since. It has allowed Always Sunny to take chances with form and content, evolve, and reach unthinkably funny heights.
Timothy Olyphant stars in Justified as Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal that polices in his own unique manner. Styled as an old-west gunslinger, Givens delivers swift justice and responds poorly to direct management. Givens’ jurisdiction has been shifted to Lexington, KY – a measure to essentially sideline him after a questionable shooting at his old post in Miami.
The show’s premise may not sound very original, probably because it isn’t. A bad boy cop, out of water, regulating in the only way he knows how. It’s definitely been done. Justified just did it as good as anyone, if not better. The show was stylishly directed, very well acted (Olyphant and Walton Goggins in particular shone), and confidently paced. It was also based on an Elmore Leonard short story, so the quality of the dialog and the characters is unsurprising.
Justified shows that an idea doesn’t have to be new to be new, and that even our most well-told stories can be freshened. A loose-cannon cop is certainly not breaking the mold, but when the execution is as tight as Justified’s, and the plotting is as engrossing as it is, you remember why we keep retelling some stories.
Expanded universes, reboots, remakes, and spinoffs. There is a never ending slew of reused IP elbowing for eyeballs right now, and a good lot of it is unnecessary at best. So any skepticism about a show inspired by the 1996 Coen Brothers Film Fargo would be forgivable. Immediately though, Fargo set itself apart as not a remake or reboot, but as a completely fresh story that happens to bear some similarity to the film of the same name.
Fargo is an anthology series, a model that is clearly working for FX. Each season brings a new story and new characters to the show’s universe. This allows the network to do a few things. First of all, as with most anthologies, it allows for incredibly tight storytelling. Each season is one complete unit, thus eliminating many of the constraints other shows endure. Secondly, it allows Fargo to draw big names, who otherwise may not want to attach to a television series. In season one, It was Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman. In season two, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Ted Danson. Next season will feature Ewan McGregor and Carrie Coon.
Fargo shows that you can revisit the worlds audiences once loved, without cynically mimicking the earlier art. Fargo doesn’t co-opt the film’s audience by force, it attracts its own audience by cooking a dish with an entirely new ingredient list, only borrowing a few dashes of atmosphere and tone from the original film.
We are beating a dead horse now, but this is the last time we’ll write it – FX’s comedic programming consistently skews stranger, more unique, and more offbeat than on any other network. When the big three networks program comedies, they do it in blocks – family comedies over here, mockumentaries over here, etc. Other networks define themselves as a destination for a particular brand of humor. FX simply goes for what’s funny. That’s how you end up with shows as dissimilar but equally hilarious as Archer, You’re The Worst, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Now, the above 93 words are only really relevant if you accept that Louie is a comedy. It definitely is funny. At varying times, it is also poignant, disturbing, melancholic, thoughtful, absurd, and basically any other descriptor you can think of. Louie is more definable by what it isn’t, than what it is. It’s a comedy by one of the funniest stand ups on earth, that goes long stretches without eliciting a laugh. It features a superstar, who plays himself like a regular schmo. Just when you think you have figured Louie out, it throws a curve, redefines itself, or goes off on some unexpected tangent. It has been almost universally praised by critics and the reason is this: whatever Louie is, it might just be the most consistently interesting show on television.
2. The Americans
There are critics who have called The Americans not just one of the best shows in FX history, but one of the best shows ever aired. Those are the degrees of praise that has been heaped on this show, a period drama about a couple of KGB spies living undercover in the Washington, D.C. area in the early 1980’s.
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys star as the spies, and Noah Emmerich stars as their neighbor – a man who happens to be an FBI officer working counterintelligence. The show is given an additional dimension by lumping a family drama on top of the espionage plot, as the two KGB operatives have children, who are completely ignorant to the truth of their situation.
The Americans truly emerged in its second season, when it became one of the most critically lauded shows on television. That season followed “The Americans”, as they attempt to steal American aviation technology as well as the investigate the deaths of two other KGB agents. Since then, the show hasn’t looked back. It smartly tiptoes a line, sympathizing both the foreign spies and the American agent. It manages to be gripping in terms of plot and character. The critics are right: it might be more than just the best show on FX right now — it might be the best show on TV.
1. The Shield
As you just read, we love The Americans. There’s no telling what lists that show might end up on after its run has ended. The Shield, though, has yet to be usurped by any FX show. Let’s get accolades out of the way – The Shield won a Golden Globe for Best Drama in 2002; Michael Chiklis won the Golden Globe for best actor and the Emmy Award for best actor that same year. In 2013, TV Guide included The Shield on its 60 Best Series of All Time list. All of that is fantastic, and speaks to the quality of the show. Still, it’s not the only reason The Shield deserves the top spot on this list.
The Shield debuted in 2002, when FX was still unrecognized as a premier destination for scripted television. In terms of style and content – and we know this phrase has come up on this list already – it looked unlike anything else that came before it. Handheld camera action sequences and a gritty atmosphere gave the show a unique look and feel. More than anything, though, The Shield was set apart by its protagonist: Vic Mackey, a bad-cop who was actually very much bad. The show depicted police corruption as frankly as possible. In the era of morally questionable male protagonists, Mackey was a poster child. And yet, Michael Chiklis’ performance and the shows writing left audiences conflicted toward the character.
The Shield had a level of depth to complement its suspense that was at the time singular on its network and rare throughout the rest of television. It was a landmark program for FX, one of the few best series of the past sixteen years, and a gigantic reason that this list even exists. Simply put, it is still the best FX show of all time.
Did you favorite FX original series make the cut? Do you agree with our rankings? Let us know in the comments.
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