FX network CEO John Landgraf says the key to success is “picking the best stories you can.” What a pity he doesn’t take his own advice.
The FX cable network is infamous for its extreme, ultra-graphic content. From the sexualized gore of Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story, to the brutal, murderous biker gangs of Sons of Anarchy, to the graphic, animated spy spoof Archer (whose own creator says the show is “cartoon porn”), FX has been home to the most explicit content this side of HBO and Showtime – except that, unlike those networks, FX is a basic cable channel. As a result, millions of cable and satellite subscribers are forced to pay for the channel, even if they find its content abhorrent.
Recently, FX’s longtime CEO John Landgraf spoke to The Hollywood Reporter, complaining about Netflix’s method of making TV series. (Supposedly, Netflix determines which future programming might be popular by using an algorhythm which tracks what current subscribers watch.)
Landgraf says it shouldn’t work that way. Instead, the sex-and-violence-obsessed CEO claims that quality programming only arises from “listen[ing] really, really carefully on a human level to what somebody tells you, and you sit and you dialogue and you think about stories…you pick the best stories and the best people you possibly can.”
It is a tragic irony that Landgraf doesn’t seem to see the implications of his own statement…or maybe he just can’t see past his own biases in favor of extreme “entertainment.” On FX, “the best stories” always involve ultra-graphic violence, explicit sex, and tons of foul language…and “the best people” are always, and only, those who produce blood-soaked, foul-mouthed pornography.
This is a perfect example of the tunnel vision which grips Hollywood today. For centuries, great literature eschewed profanity and explicit sex, and employed violence only when crucial to the story. Yet based on his previous choices, it seems that John Landgraf would not consider Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, or P.G. Wodehouse “the best people,” or their works “the best stories.” It is entirely possible to tell deep, meaningful, and creative stories without employing graphic content; but not on the FX network.
Landgraf then went on to complain about the “monopoly” that companies like Netflix and Google aspire to wield over TV distribution, and about the restrictions on content such companies exercise over their “creative” writers and showrunners. Newsflash to Mr. Landgraf:
There is already a “monopoly” in the entertainment industry today: if you make family-friendly TV, there’s practically no network that will air it, because all the allegedly “creative” people at every major network is all about “pushing the envelope” and being “edgy.”
Case in point: ABC’s recently cancelled revival of The Muppets. How was it even POSSIBLE to fail with a Family Hour TV series about one of the most beloved children’s properties in Hollywood? Yet ABC managed it — by putting in charge “creative” people with background on adult “comedy” shows like FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, who declared their intention to make the kid-friendly Muppets “too risque” by “pushing the envelope.”
Further, one can also disagree with Landgraf’s assertion that “I think our society is best when storytellers are in the most empowered positions.” On the contrary, the finest works of art are produced when creators operate under some restrictions. Whether it was Max Perkins’ editorial supervision of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, under which they produced their greatest novels; the Hays Code, under which Hollywood produced classics like Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, and hundreds of others; or the Renaissance artists who had to please their financial patrons, some limitation on content forces creators to tap the reserves of their creativity and skill. By contrast, an “anything goes” policy, under which “storytellers are in the most empowered positions,” all too often results in extreme, vulgarized content which repels as many (or more) audience members as it enlightens.
And in the greatest irony of all, Landgraf concluded his remarks by criticizing the lack of originality on TV today, asserting that “telling a great story is not about imitating something that somebody has done before — it’s about doing something original.” This is rich coming from someone whose network shows nothing but programs containing graphic sex, violence, and gore.
On FX, as in most of the rest of the entertainment industry today, producing a program that is suitable for families would indeed be “doing something original.”