Brow Beat

FX to Fill the Miniseries Void With Fargo, Mayflower, and More

Frances McDormand in the original Fargo.

© 1996 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

John Landgraf’s presentation at the FX “upfront” presentation this morning was unusually newsy. In addition to the typical announcements about series renewals—Justified, Archer, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, and Legit are all coming back—and the first looks at new pilots, the FX president heralded the birth of a new “suite” of networks comprising FX, FXM, and—he confirmed for the first time—newcomer FXX.

The tongue-twisting array of channels will be demarcated by demographics: “FX will target adults 18-49, FXX will focus on adults 18-34, and FXM will aim for adults 25-54.” This may seem like an odd way to divide up a group of channels, but it has been a successful strategy at Nickelodeon, where the Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., and Teen Nick channels each target a different age range.

According to a press release, FXX, the brand-new channel, “initially will be built on a foundation of original comedy series, movies and acquired series, and [will eventually] expand to include original drama series.” At its launch on Sept. 2, FXX will be anchored by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League, which will move from FX to the new channel. Taking successful shows off the networks where they have run for several series is risky (Sunny will be in its ninth season when it launches FXX this fall, The League in its fifth)—but their fans are loyal and thus likely to follow the comedies to a new home. (As long as they get FXX, that is. FX is now carried in more than 98 million homes; today’s announcement promised that FXX would be available to 74 million in Year 1, though the executives weren’t able to explain how they’d manage that.)

One of the most interesting nuggets from Landgraf’s presentation was a noticeable emphasis on “miniseries and limited series.” (The distinction, he said, is that a miniseries has a singled closed-ended run, while a limited series might go as long as two or three seasons.) Fargo, a 10-episode series inspired by the Oscar-winning Coen Bros. movie, will be the first to air, and according to FX, it “will follow a new case and new characters, all entrenched in the trademark humor, murder and ‘Minnesota nice’ that has made the film an enduring classic.” Joel and Ethan Coen will executive produce, along with former NBC executive and author of the 2012 book Top of the Rock, Warren Littlefield. Other limited series announced were Mayflower, “an unflinching portrait of the Puritan settlers at Plymouth Colony and their uneasy alliance with the local Native Americans”; Grand Hotel, in which a luxury Paris hotel is hit by a terrorist attack; Mad Dogs, based on a British show, in which four fortysomething guys have adventures in Belize; and Sutton, based on the life of bank robber Willie Sutton.

This news is music to Slate’s ears, of course. A recent article by David Haglund dubbed the miniseries “the ideal form for television.” Landgraf said the FX Networks were betting on short-run series because they don’t want business imperatives to shape storytelling. The broadcast networks’ appetite for episodes creates an illusion of convergence, so that network procedurals begin to look alike. The dream of landing a longrunning show becomes “its own golden handcuffs,” he said. FX is telling creative talent to “put the story first; we’ll figure out the business model.”

And, of course, shorter commitments help networks to attract more prestigious talent. Recent TV turns by movie directors like David Fincher and Martin Scorsese are often less time-consuming than they first seem—Fincher directed two episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards, while Scorsese helmed only the pilot of Boardwalk Empire. Among the glittering names dropped in FX’s announcements this morning were Ang Lee, who will be directing the pilot of Tyrant, a Middle East thriller from the men behind Homeland; Guillermo del Toro, who has created The Strain, which offers “a unique biological approach to vampirism”; Charlie Kaufman, who is writing a comedy series called How & Why; Sam Mendes, who will be one of the executive producers of Grand Hotel; Alexander Payne, who is involved with Sutton; and the aforementioned Coen Bros.

The real test will be whether any of these successful movie makers return for a second round of television production. In the meantime, these limited-run series have already jumped to the top of my most-anticipated list. I like the 120-minute films those men have made. Now I’m ready to see what they can do in 10 hours.