Darkness becomes FX.
Whether it's the Southern Gothic tone of "Justified," the evil incarnate of "American Horror Story," the Cold War paranoia of "The Americans" or the underlying menace of "Sons of Anarchy," the deeply flawed characters populating these shows and the intricate plots involving murder, mayhem, duplicity and betrayal have set FX apart from other basic cable television programming.
The Shield" burst on the scene to critical and ratings success. That first year, "The Shield" brought home an Emmy for lead actor Michael Chiklis' performance as a rogue L.A. cop that started FX's journey to the dark side of human nature.
From that sprang other unsettling dramas, including "Nip/Tuck" and even the wry Denis Leary series "Rescue Me." It's a path that has proven successful for FX. In 2013 cable rankings, "Sons of Anarchy" snagged the No. 3 spot behind AMC's "The Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad," but ahead of HBO's "Game of Thrones." "Justified," "The Americans" and "The Bridge" all landed in the top 30 cable shows for the year.
Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for HitFix and author of "The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slinger and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever," says FX was the first basic cable network to take on HBO.
"With 'The Shield,' FX opened up a universe to prove what HBO was doing was replicable," Sepinwall says.
And he loves FX for taking a walk on the noir side.
"They have one of the better batting averages, and anything they are going to do on the drama side is going to be interesting," he says. "They have a very smart team with interesting creators like Ryan Murphy and Kurt Sutter and they leave them alone. It's a good place to be."
That creative latitude has served the network well, especially in the early days. FX CEO John Landgraf says the network progressed to these darker themes naturally because creators wanted to explore different character options.
"When you force them to make the same choices because of the networks' comfort zone, you often end up with shows that look exactly the same," Landgraf says. "We are in the business of surprising, shocking and delighting in subtle ways that advances the medium. And you can't do that through the collective taste of me or those I work with. You have to leave it to the creative people."
On the surface, the FX line-up might look like a spy show, a biker show, a supernatural show, and a quirky cop show, but Landgraf sees his programming as so much more.
"Artists want to entertain, but they also want to explore the human condition and compel an audience to explore that too," Landgraf says. "You don't get into Troy unless the horse is appealing. So we make sure that horse is tall, proud and something you want to usher into your home. But ultimately what we want is to get the things the writers want to explore, the guys inside, into that space."
Joe Weisberg, creator of "The Americans,'' says he developed the series for FX because the idea of doing a show where the main characters worked for the KGB was not scary to the network. "And they really knew how to take something in its nascent stage and turn it into a great show," Weisberg says. "It was intriguing for them."
Weisberg's partner Joel Fields had worked with FX on and off for years.
"I knew from experience what a uniquely supportive place it was, and how it cultivates its artists," Fields says. "It's challenging to work there in the best sense of the word. You feel empowered to make your own choices and make your own mistakes, which is unique in the TV landscape. FX is about trust. We don't have to hide our struggles from them."
Fields says when he first worked with FX on "Over There," he was shocked when Landgraf told him there was no formula. A scene could take seven pages -- or 15.
"He told me just to be compelling and it was an interesting lesson," Fields says.
Almost all of the FX series were developed for the network, including its foray into anthology with Ryan Murphy's "American Horror Story," which has done exceedingly well for the network. "Coven" landed the No. 1 spot for 2013 miniseries and "Asylum" grabbed No. 3. FX got into the limited series business with "Fargo" this spring. That tantalizingly sinister project lured movie actor Billy Bob Thornton to the smallscreen.
"When I was coming up, if you went from film to television it meant something was wrong," Thornton told TV critics at the January press tour. "The motion picture studios make big event movies, broad comedies and action movies. For actors who want to do good dramatic work, with dark humor and drama, you have to do it on television."