As the Emmy award season approaches, I thought it would be interesting to delve into the Emmy history of the FX network which has both opened up the Emmy game to basic cable networks in a way that was never thought possible before the early 2000s, but has also endured a number of surprising, and frustrating, award snubs.
The FX network rose from humble beginnings- created in 1994, it was broadcast from a small apartment-style office in Manhattan, and was originally not even available on the local cable system in its hometown of New York. Given a second launch in 1997 with more explicit branding as “ Fox Gone Cable”, it was given a new focus on the target demographic of men 18-49, mostly airing reruns of shows from its parent network. Around this time, it began its first moves to develop original programming, with its first original being the Howard Stern-produced sitcom Son of the Beach (a parody of Baywatch), which did little to burnish the company’s brand and has long since been forgotten. It would take FX’s first original drama to put it on the map and mark the beginning of its bittersweet Emmy history.
Making its debut in March of 2002, The Shield not only established FX as a network to watch but paved the way for all of basic cable to be taken seriously as a home for original programming, often being compared to what Oz and The Sopranos accomplished for premium cable. It garnered buzz right away for its dark, gritty take on the police drama- focusing on overtly corrupt, brutal detectives on the front lines of the war on drugs in Los Angeles. A major twist in the pilot episode – wherein Det. Terry Crowley, an Internal Affairs mole charged with investigating lead anti-hero Det. Vic Mackey, was shockingly murdered by Mackey at the episode’s end – generated instant water-cooler conversation which the show was able to sustain over the course of it’s first season.
When the 2002 Emmy season rolled around, the show emerged as a strong contender, and saw itself rewarded with several major nominations – Lead Actor for Michael Chiklis, and the writing and direction of the pilot episode by Shawn Ryan and Clark Johnson, respectively. However, it failed to gain the big prize of a Drama Series nomination despite this support across multiple branches of NATAS. Looking back, this could in large part be chalked up to the fact that the Academy, usually conservative and resistant to change, was slow to recognize anything outside of the broadcast networks (who at this point in time still dominated the Drama field, with four out of five nominees), and HBO – which even then had a track record at the Emmys going back over a decade. FX’s Emmy performance that year was somewhat reminiscent of the first HBO original to be Emmy nominated – political mockumentary Tanner ’88, which was nominated for (and subsequently won) Directing for a Comedy Series for the legendary Robert Altman.
The Shield, filmed in a grainy, handheld style which lacked the cinematic, glossy sheen of the networks and HBO, could perhaps have come off as too lowbrow for the Emmy voters to easily acknowledge as one of the finest series around. This would prove to be ironic, considering that in the winter of 2002 the series would win the Golden Globe Award for Best Drama Series, voted on by the ultimate partisans of glossy sheen, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
This Academy preference might also explain why one of FX’s subsequent dramas, Rescue Me, was never able to crack the Drama Series field despite multiple nominations for star Denis Leary and despite a very timely, arguably Emmy-baiting premise – the lives of New York City firefighters in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Subsequent FX dramas from the late 2000s or the 2010s such as Sons of Anarchy, or Justified, despite garnering massive ratings success and critical acclaim, respectively, may be similarly hamstrung by this aesthetic bias on the part of the Academy.
If being too gritty and low-down was FX’s Achilles Heel at the Emmys, how then to explain the failure of Nip/Tuck, another one of it’s original flagship dramas? The work of series creator Ryan Murphy has been called many things, but it is safe to say that “gritty” has not been among them. Murphy’s series- centered on a controversial Miami plastic surgery practice – was as glossy as The Shield was gritty, and was an instant ratings success and phenomenon following its debut in the summer of 2003, it received only one non-Creative Arts nomination at the 56th Emmys in 2004 (for Murphy’s direction of the pilot). How then to explain FX coming up short? For one thing, Murphy’s series was critically divisive (though many critics praised the series, yellow and red reviews for its first season number in the double digits on Metacritic) and, with Murphy’s only previous creator credit to that point having been WB series Popular (WB and its successor network the CW perhaps being the least favorite Emmy network to have every produced acclaimed series), he had difficulty getting NATAS to take him seriously as a purveyor of respected drama. Nip/Tuck likely helped Murphy overcome the WB’s stigma, as his subsequent series Glee and American Horror Story have been nominated for and won many Emmys, but this was surely cold comfort to FX. No matter how hard it tried, the perfect formula for winning over awards voters seemed to elude it.
To date, only one FX drama has overcome the Emmy misfortune that has plagued the network. From the very beginning, Emmy awards seemed to be built into the very DNA of Damages. The brainchild of former Sopranos writer Todd A. Kessler, along with his brother Glenn and their producing partner Daniel Zellman, the series combined one of NATAS’ favorite genres – the legal drama- with the dark, serialized storytelling that had become all the rage by the time it made its debut in 2007. Damages also boasted an almost unprecedented level of star power in its cast – Glenn Close featured in the lead role as ruthless New York attorney Patty Hewes, and the series’ primary antagonist in the first season was television legend Ted Danson as a manipulative, highly unethical CEO. Subsequent seasons saw such names as William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Martin Short and John Goodman all come on board. The all-star casts would be rounded out by veteran character actors such as Željko Ivanek and Tate Donovan, and rising star Rose Byrne.
FX must have surely believed it had crafted the silver bullet for Emmy, and it was right – the series was the network’s first to score a Drama Series nomination, and it won Emmys for Close in Lead Actress and Supporting Actor Željko Ivanek. Though it failed to win Drama Series, no one at FX could have reasonably been disappointed with its performance at so many failures to even be nominated. However, the success was not to last. The series’ ratings gradually diminished, and critics, while largely positive, never mentioned the series in the same breath as the top dramas from premium cable or even basic cable rivals such as AMC. The series dropped out of the Drama Series field after only two seasons, and, worse yet, its ratings collapsed to the point where FX canceled it after its third (although it was resurrected by DirecTV for two more, and has become a fixture on Netflix, popular enough to warrant that company to order a highly-anticipated original series with a Damages-esque all-star cast from the Kesslers and Zellman).
FX’s problems on the comedy side of the Emmys have, if anything, been less successful than their issues with dramas. In their first decade of original programming, they received only one main ceremony nomination for their sitcoms – a Writing nomination in 2003 for one-season series Lucky, which starred John Corbett as a self-destructive professional poker player. This may have been due to the low-budget productions and highly caustic style of humor favored by their sitcoms, exemplified by their long-running staple It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which, despite being one of the most long-running comedies on television with a great deal of critical acclaim, has to date received a single nomination, for Stunt Coordination in 2013, after its ninth season). Changing their luck would require one of the most critically acclaimed comedies in the history of television.
Enter Louis CK, a rising standup who had been working for years and steadily building up respect in the industry, despite some failed ventures into sitcom territory in the past (2006’s HBO series Lucky Louie was considered a misfire and lasted a single season). When Louie premiered on FX in June 2010, it was a critical phenomenon, believed by many to be redefining what a television sitcom could even be, as well as arguably the purest auteur product on TV (CK has written, starred in, produced, directed, and edited most of the series’ episodes). CK was nominated for his acting and writing in the first season, and then in the second broke the record for most nominations for a single individual at one Emmys, winning in the Writing category. A Comedy Series nomination, however, would elude the series until its third season, showing just how much difficulty there is for even the most acclaimed FX offerings to be fully recognized by the Academy.
Many explanations can be offered to explain FX’s Emmy dilemma. Ultimately, the best explanation might be the simplest. The network has not historically spent the money on campaigns that its rivals, especially premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime. However, this state of affairs may be changing. As the network has grown in popularity and built its brand(it recently spun off two sister networks, FXX and FXM), it has found itself acquiring more high-profile programming, and is willing to put down the cash necessary to make sure the Academy recognizes it. Awards journalist Pete Hammond reported this year that FX has thrown lavish, HBO-style screenings of its hit shows, such as a screening of American Horror Story: Coven accompanied by” a New Orleans-style feast and concert from Stevie Nicks.” (Source). The network is hoping for breakthrough success in the Miniseries field, where it has strong contenders in Coven and Fargo, with the latter in particular tipped as the favorite to bring home FX’s first-ever Series win.
FX still has much room for improvement- their acclaimed drama The Americans will count itself fortunate if it scores a single main ceremony nomination, but its future looks bright. This week, it will premiere Tyrant, a series from 24 and Homeland creator Howard Gordon, about the Americanized son of a Middle Eastern dictator who returns to his home country. Though it has virtually no stars in the cast (the biggest name is Angels in America and Weeds’ Justin Kirk), the highly timely series blends Michael Corleone’s epic arc from the Godfather films with the real-life backstory of notorious Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad (a Westernized London doctor prior to returning home to succeed his father after his older brother died in a car accident). If successful, it could be FX’s best chance yet at a sustained Drama Series presence. The network is also looking to build on its newfound results in the Miniseries field, with future projects in the works from the likes of Sam Mendes and Alexander Payne. FX’s battle to be in the top tier of prestige networks has been long and arduous, but the tide may have finally turned in its favor.