FX’s TCA panels indicate a push for unique perspectives and more diverse directors behind the camera.
At a Television Critics Association (TCA) event on Tuesday, FX CEO John Landgraf gave his address on the network’s fall programming. Two major topics emerged from his presentation, both continuations of conversations he’s contributed to in the past year.
The first regards “Peak TV”, or what he considers to be the unsustainable growth in scripted television series over the past few years and the inevitability of a decline in production.
As reported in Deadline, Landgraf has revised his Peak TV predictions and now believes we will reach peak production in 2017 or even as late as 2019. His theory is based on two ideas.
First, viewers are already struggling to keep up with the amount of content airing today. I know that I, an avid consumer of content, feel overwhelmed at the breadth of shows out there, but I’m not sure if I follow his logic completely. He concludes that, as a result, “we have lost much of the thread of a coherent, collective conversation about what is good, what is very good and what is great.” While it has become more difficult to determine which programs will capture the zeitgeist of our time, I disagree with his assessment in total. The problem is that there isn’t one type of good anymore. Instead of the serial dramas whose popularity drove the development of television over the last decade (think The Wire or Breaking Bad), the best shows on television today are of many different genres and formats (Fargo, Rick & Morty, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to name a few). For a more thorough examination of the trends in storytelling styles over the past few years, check out this stellar piece from Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture.
The second idea is much more simple. With so many popular shows drawing the attention of viewers in different directions, they cannot all remain profitable. Eventually, networks will realize this and have to decrease their production demands. As opposed to a bubble that could pop and halve the amount of scripted series on air, he forecasts that this number will “slowly deflate, perhaps from 500+ shows to 400 or a little less than that.” I could get into the numbers here, but Landgraf’s thoughts on Peak TV are not the focus of this piece. So, if you’re interested in a breakdown of the viewership and marketing data he used to come to this conclusion, then take a look at this Deadline article.
However, the second topic from his presentation IS the focus of this piece. That topic is the network’s commitment to, and its actions over the past year in pursuit of, diversity in all aspects of production. In response to a 2015 Variety article that decried the lack of diversity among TV directors, Landgraf undertook a mission to up FX’s hiring of directors of color and of white women directors. According to another story from Variety, only 12% of FX’s directors in the 2014–2015 season were women or people of color. That was the worst percentage of all networks. For the 2015–2016 season, that number is up to 51%.
And that’s no accident. Landgraf took concrete steps to inspire the change. After reading the Variety report, he sent a letter to all of the FX and FXX showrunners, to whom he credits the increase in hiring of diverse directors. His message to them was clear: you maintain decision-making power, but diversifying the directing pool is a significant priority. Before moving in this direction, he explains: “I had been more focused on this question of storytellers in the broad sense, and how do we get everyone’s story told ‐ not just white males. […] How do we get the right shows, the right executive producers? Because ultimately that changes the composition of the way a story is told and presented and it does ultimately change the composition of the employee base.”
Luckily, FX executives and showrunners were up to the task. Along with the creators themselves, Landgraf places primary responsibility with Jonathan Frank, FX’s EVP of Current Series, and Nicole Bernard, EVP of Audience Strategy for the Fox Television Group. Their key strategy was to invest in new talent. Frank sought out candidates with or without TV-directing experience, instead focusing on people who could execute character and emotional moments well and make them shine through to audiences. Besides an array of viewpoints and backgrounds, Landgraf notes that there is an upside to having less experienced people:
“you find a kind of passion and enthusiasm, that new surprise. You look at who’s actually created shows for FX that have succeeded and there are a lot of first-time showrunners ‐ Ryan Murphy, Denis Leary, Louis C.K., the ‘It’s Always Sunny’ creators, Kurt Sutter, Joe Weisberg, Pamela Adlon, Donald Glover. There can be a negative associated with the risk of having somebody who’s less experienced, but there’s a huge positive too.”
Though he acknowledges that it takes five or more years for individuals hired as individual episode directors to progress to “that category of showrunner or executive producer or director of every episode [of a TV season], he views the current initiative as an important first step in ensuring more equitable representation on television. And it’s already paying dividends. Here are two of the shows (and their creators) that reflect this trend.
Community alum and hip-hop phenom Donald Glover created, stars in, and executive produces Atlanta, which premieres in September. The series focuses on “Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover), a loner who returns to his hometown after failing to achieve his artistic dreams. Instead of simply providing for his family, Marks is drawn back into the music scene when he discovers his cousin, Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), has become the city’s hottest new rapper. I discovered the series during an episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson. After the bailiff read the verdict, the show cut to commercial. But instead of a typical ad, we saw the above promo. The spot has the show’s leads reacting as if they were watching along with the audience, an ingenious move on FX’s part. Since then, I have enjoyed every consecutive promo’s ability to bring a stunning, yet understated slice-of-life quality to the screen in only a few moments.
The Hollywood Reporter reveals that Glover and company were on hand at the TCA event to discuss their inspirations for the series. Thankfully, their words indicate that the series will deliver on its promise of presenting an experience not often depicted on television. Co-star Brian Tyree Henry observes one particular reason for this: “What’s so special about the city is that it’s always constantly growing and changing. Black people run Atlanta. It’s our city. Our little hub allows people to come in and expand what we have. I just love that.”
The show will feature a dark tone that Glover considers appropriate for its subject matter: “I always want people to be scared, because that’s kind of how it feels to be black.” That doesn’t mean there won’t be room for laughs. Executive Producer Hiro Murai, one of the men of color Landgraf mentioned in his presentation, continues, “We’re trying to a create a tone in a world where things can happen, where you are allowed to laugh at the hard jokes … but you can also feel real stakes. […] People can get shot and die and you actually care about these characters.” As if that didn’t sound great enough, there will be well-known rappers guest starring throughout the season, though not necessarily in roles one would expect.
Atlanta premieres on Tuesday September 6th.
Better Things is an autobiographical comedy from longtime Louis C.K. collaborator Pamela Adlon. As according to Deadline, the story concerns Sam (Adlon), “a working actor with no filter trying to earn a living, navigate her daughters’ lives, and have fun with friends.” As FX’s first comedy with a solo female lead, the series is new territory for the network, though its creator may disagree about its categorization. Adlon, at the TCA panel on Tuesday, likens the show to Louie, saying, “It’s not comedy or dramedy. It’s The Incredible Feeling Show.” She continues, “I feel that everything is funny in my life and there is a lot of funny in the darkness…I don’t like anything that’s dark without heart.”
The blunt talk between Adlon’s character and her fictional daughters in the trailer above is especially refreshing in a media landscape dominated by sitcom-style depictions of parents. Though a few shows, like Louie, have focused on the pressures of parenthood, few have taken the realistic approach to motherhood on display here and even fewer have presented a mother as a fully-developed character outside of her relationship with her children. The series also presents an opportunity to tell a story, in Adlon’s words, “about girls at three different stages, developmentally.” Given its tendencies towards absurdist realism and Adlon’s perspective in the writing process, I have high hopes for its ability to portray the ridiculousness often inherent in the parent-child relationship.
One more thing: If you have any doubts about Adlon’s credentials, her career speaks for itself. Her work as a writer, actor, and producer on Louie has earned her two Emmy nominations, and that ignores her previous success. Her first Emmy win was for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance in 2002. Who did she voice? Bobby Hill on King of the Hill. Regardless, her status on this show is the result of decades of tireless work and astounding success, and I cannot wait to see the result of her efforts.
Better Things premieres Thursday September 8th.
While these programs were greenlit slightly before FX executives were confronted with their unacceptable diversity numbers last August, their creators and the composition of their directing pools indicate a network more committed to the cause than ever before. By leading other cable networks in hiring women directors and directors of color, FX is proving it is not only financially viable, but also that it can lead to huge successes. If you want more proof, just look at the network’s 56 Emmy nominations this year. In an age of Peak TV, FX is differentiating itself from its competitors, and the results leave me hopeful for the company’s future.
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