FX Is the New King of Very Messed-Up Dark Comedies on TV
The kind of funny that turns your laugh into a sob.
Big networks have dictated what appears on TV since tiny moving pictures were first being fed into the great national boob tube. Iconic network shows like Friends, Family Ties, ER, The Rockford Files, Twin Peaks, or the West Wing are the hard-to-forget products of a corporate mind meld. The building-block list of formative TV series that these greats were built upon stretches back decades and is much too long to unroll here. Suffice it to say, those perfect, made-for-primetime TV shows have left an everlasting affect on American culture. All those classic shows aired weekly, and people gathered around screens everywhere, to watch them live, all at the same time.
These bow-tied TV shows, even in their wrenching sorrows and pure comedy genius, were above all else safe for primetime. Few network TV shows, then and now, took risks, broached controversial topics from a controversial viewpoint, or represented dark comedy in a thoughtful and meaningful way. Notable and successful attempts, of course, were made, but they were still PG.
Until now. The TV world is spinning on an off-kilter moral compass because FX, Fox’s baby sister channel, has honed in on the whole perfectly-sad, dark comedy thing. And the baby network is airing these shows every week, on live TV.
Of course, FX isn't the first or only platform to make fucked-up TV that feels like a gut punch or gives you all the feels, but it is on the front line of live-TV networks to air shows that are as unsettling as they are entertaining every week. It’s a a change from seeking out mind-fuck shows on premium channels like HBO or bingewatching on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Independent networks (ahem, Netflix) are really banking on taking risks and watching the calculated edginess pay off.
We expect high-end presentation from Showtime and HBO, and we go back every week, suckers for that slick gut punch from GIRLS, Game of Thrones, Homeland, or The L Word. We know that the content networks you have to pay for are taking smart-money risks, going to the dark side, put out a show that is deliberately and calculatedly something Grandma and even Mom will be too shocked to love.
Now we expect the same with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. And the apex series on those platforms (I’m looking at you, Transparent, and Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards) are hyped up for months before they're dumped into pop-culture-freak laps to be gobbled up in one sitting. Like when Stranger Things came out—if you didn’t watch all episodes right away, you were already missing out.
There’s a magic to TV viewing that takes a chance on a show that wouldn’t fit the mold of popular, primetime TV. The train wreck potential for disaster is all the more reason to watch, and these streaming TV services can make a ton of shows, one for every one.
And then there is FX: Quietly putting out risky, uncomfortable, noteworthy television with a basic cable subscription. It’s working. Louie, Better Things, Fargo, Baskets, Atlanta, The Americans. The shows are all fucking good, and they didn’t get there over night.
Comedian Louie CK aired his show, Louie, on FX in 2010 to mixed reviews and a bit of serious critical acclaim. The show is dark, gritty, incredibly sad, terribly funny, and sometimes stupid. The show’s success (it's on season 6 now) stretched beyond itself. Louie CK was the right mix of indie artist and successful writer to help FX launch into what it is today. His show paved the way for the fucked-up FX shows to come—the risky, sad, uncomfortable ones, that might not have made it to Netflix, and would have certainly never been though of as the next, say, Friends.
In 2016 alone, FX launched three new comedies, all in similar tone and vein to Louie’s shtick, hitting that sweet spot of sad and funny and grossly pathetic and petty. FX aired Baskets, a sad fucking clown ruining his life in Bakersfield (and actor Louie Anderson was nominated for an Emmy); Atlanta, Donald Glover’s perfectly uncomfortable show about black men in Atlanta trying to make it in the rap game; and most recently, there’s Better Things, created by Pamela Adlon and Louis CK about a single-mother/actress/LA lady trying to just get the fuck by.
Combined with Louie, these comedies and drama-comedies add up to a defining feel for FX—risky and dark drama/comedies that cater to an audience that really will come back week after week and watch on a regular basis on regular cable.
Even FX's latest original dramas—American Horror Story, The Americans, Fargo, and American Crime Story, and originally Sons of Anarchy, Nip/Tuck, and Damages—are no more "in the box" than Atlanta or Baskets.
But before Louie CK hit FX with his show in 2010, the network seemed to struggle to find a brand-worthy comedic voice and sense of humor. The network had stuffed itself on over-the-top, sometimes trashy, soapy dramas that left little room for comedy.
So maybe thank Louie CK for the flood of new (and wonderful) comedies coming out of FX, or maybe thank ourselves for supporting and watching fucked-up kinds of shows in any way they are presented.
Whatever the case, FX is home to arguably the best dark comedy on TV, ever, however you watch it, and it seems to keep getting better.