In the beginning, a network — then known as "fX" — was rebroadcasting episodes of Batman and Nanny and the Professor and hosting original programming about pets and music, with a morning show hosted by Tom Bergeron (yes, that Tom Bergeron) and another show devoted to responding to viewer mail, hosted by Jeff Probst (yes, that Jeff Probst).
In short, things have evolved in a very positive direction for FX, the basic cable network that launched on June 1, 1994. Under network president John Landgraf, FX has earned a reputation for anything but basic programming, with a stable of dramas and comedies that rival (and often surpass) the quality of series on network and premium cable channels.
In honor of FX's big 2-0, we're counting down the 15 best (and five worst) shows in the network's history. Congratulations on a great run, FX... and please keep those hits coming.
15. The League (2009-present)
Created by former Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm writer/producer Jeff Schaffer and his wife Jackie Marcus Schaffer, The League revolves around a group of friends who compete against each other in a fantasy football league. "Friends" is the right word for their relationships, though the only thing they really love more than trouncing each other in pursuit of winning the Shiva trophy (their fantasy league's top prize) is torturing and embarrassing each other — the more public and high-stakes the mocking, the better. Sound Seinfeld-ian? It is, mainly because, as with Seinfeld, the main characters on The League are barely tolerable humans, at best.
14. Wilfred (2011-present)
As the dark comedy is set to begin its final season, the question remains: What is Wilfred? Is he a hilariously foul-mouthed guy in a dog suit, or an imaginary friend that the more mild-mannered Ryan cooked up to bring himself out of his shell and act out his less polite impulses? Or is Wilfred indicative of something truly broken in Ryan? While it will be satisfying if we get an answer before the series finale, it'll also be alright if we don't. Wilfred has been incredibly entertaining and sometimes downright bizarre, but also a sweet and heartfelt buddy-comedy romp through the minds of two bong-smoking philosophers (and the teddy bear that one of them loved a little too much).
13. American Horror Story (2011-present)
The horror/supernatural anthology series helped pave the way for limited-run shows like True Detective and Fargo, and for that alone, it earns a spot on this list of FX's best shows. But kudos to creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk also for the conception and successful execution of a series that can use a repertoire of actors to tell twisty, turn-filled stories every season… new twisty, turn-filled stories every season. You may love some stories (and some seasons) more than others, but three seasons in, Murphy, Falchuk, and company have earned the audience's trust that they're going to unfold something surprising, creepy, and unlike any other show on TV each time.
12. Nip/Tuck (2003-10)
A serial killer/rapist named The Carver, a surgically-enhanced Joan Rivers guest starring as a surgically-enhanced Joan Rivers, male breast cancer, a guy who tried to perform his own circumcision using Internet instructions, Melissa Gilbert as a woman whose nipples were bitten off by her dog (who she lured into bestiality by smearing herself with peanut butter — oh, Half Pint!), a surgeon whose sexual partner was an office couch… that is but a smidgen of the storylines (all inspired by real-life events) and characters Ryan Murphy introduced on Nip/Tuck, the drama set at the plastic surgery practice of Drs. Christian Troy and Sean McNamara. The series, and the behavior of the docs and their cohorts, became increasingly outrageous and more graphic as the seasons wore on, but liberal moments of mordant humor and the fact that they genuinely cared about each other endeared them to the audience. Well, maybe not the couch guy. Or The Carver.
11. Rescue Me (2004-11)
Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin, a New York City firefighter and guilty survivor of 9/11, was pure antihero: fearless in saving the lives of strangers on a daily basis, but so selfish and self-destructive that his family and friends alternately loved and hated him. Viewers were allowed to delight a bit more in Tommy's bad-boy behaviors, though one of the dramedy's greatest accomplishments was paying homage to the life-risking work firemen do, while also acknowledging they're as flawed as anyone else in their personal lives. Rescue Me, as tense and crushing as its storylines could be — like when Tommy and estranged wife Janet dealt with the death of their young son Connor, who was killed by a drunk driver in Season 2 — also tempered the heartbreaking drama with constant doses of the gallows humor men and women in that kind of profession employ to remain sane.
10. Terriers (2010)
Could this wonderfully charming and subtle buddy drama really have failed because of its title? That was one of the more prevalent theories about why the Donal Logue/Michael Raymond-James series failed to lure enough viewers to earn it a second season on FX. That was a huge disappointment to its small (too small, sadly) but devoted fan base, but it seemed the title — which referred to the characters' scrappy persistence — either didn't entice viewers to tune in or confused them as to what the show was about. The fantastic Logue has gone on to star in several other series, including FX's Sons of Anarchy and the much-anticipated Fox fall drama Gotham, but Terriers devotees are still so hopeful about seeing private eye pals Hank and Britt reunited that talk of a Terriers movie continues to pop up during interviews with the show's cast and creators.
9. Damages (2007-10)
Low ratings and high production costs sent the show packing to DirecTV for its final two seasons, but Seasons 1-3, including Glenn Close's two Emmy-winning performances as brilliant lawyer Patty Hewes, aired on FX. Hewes was the center of the NYC-based legal drama, as her firm, Hewes and Associates, handled class-action lawsuits where hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake. The series welcomed an impressive lineup of supporting stars through the seasons — Ted Danson, John Goodman, Timothy Olyphant, Marcia Gay Harden, Martin Short, William Hurt, Lily Tomlin, and Željko Ivanek, to name a few — but it will be best remembered for its tight storytelling and the performances of Close and co-star Rose Byrne in examining the complicated relationship between Hewes and her mentee Ellen Parsons. It has become less rare on TV, thankfully, to find a female character so freely allowed to be a layered antihero, but Hewes remains one of the best.
8. Fargo (2014-present)
Movies adapted as TV series? There have been some good ones — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Parenthood, Friday Night Lights, M*A*S*H — but there are also many, many flops. Remember the TV versions of Ferris Bueller, Uncle Buck, or Working Girl? Exactly. In fact, a previous attempt at bringing Fargo to the small screen starred future Emmy winner Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson, and it never even made it to air. But FX's current, limited-run take on the movie is perfection. Why? The cast, of course, with Billy Bob Thornton giving one of his best-ever performances in any medium, as well as equally award-worthy turns by Allison Tolman, Martin Freeman, and Colin Hanks. But where other movie-to-TV series attempts have failed at trying to make an exact replica of the original, FX's Fargo has wisely focused on duplicating the spirit of the movie's story, setting, characters, and tone —and you betcha, it's a winning formula.
7. Archer (2009-present)
As well-written as nearly any live-action comedy on TV, so retro stylish we think of it as the animated Mad Men, and revolving around a pathologically self-centered spy guy so cool, quotable, and outrageous that a spinoff How to Archer guidebook was written, Archer is one of the funniest shows on any network, and one of the most underrated. Sterling Archer, the spy with James Bond looks and serious mommy issues, is surrounded by characters who, like him, delight in naughty wordplay. And the series is staffed with an incredibly talented voice cast — including an Emmy-worthy H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, Jessica Walter, Amber Nash, Lucky Yates, and series creator Adam Reed — who pull it off with perfect deadpan delivery.
6. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-present)
Another FX comedy often compared to Seinfeld — "Seinfeld on crack" was an early review of the series — It’s Always Sunny also revolves around a group of friends who are lucky they have each other because, as they’ve learned time and time again, no one else can stand to be around them. But simply passing the show off as another Seinfeld wannabe would be grossly underappreciating just how sharp and clever Sunny has proven itself to be, from episodes that have cheekily addressed everything from gay marriage, gun control, child beauty pageants, social networks, and the series' lack of major awards nominations to the classic musical episode "The Nightman Cometh," which the cast took on the road for a live performance tour. Besides, Sunny will forever be known as the show that unleashed Charlie Day and Kaitlin Olson upon the comedy world, which will likely continue to pay off for years to come.
5. Louie (2010-present)
Unlike FX's other signature comedies, Louie is a more low-key, pseudo-autobiographical take on comedian Louis C.K.'s life as a stand-up comic and divorced father of two girls. That has led real-life Louie to have TV Louie address everything from dating post-divorce, being the single-dad caretaker of two girls, and various rivalries and contentious relationships with his fellow comedians. The series creator/star/writer/producer hasn’t been a stickler about the show's format, which means viewers may or may not get stand-up performances in the episodes; the episodes may or may not be standalone; and, in the current season, there may be multi-episode arcs. That's made for a show that is sometimes surprising and bold, at other times subtle and thoughtful, but reliably smart and relatable.
4. The Americans (2013-present)
Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg (a real-life former CIA officer) are using the story of a pair of undercover KGB agents living in America as an entry point to also address the complexities, secrets, and hidden lives between married couples. The series works equally beautifully on both levels, with the work life of Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings providing the action and intrigue and the couple's precarious marriage and family life with kids Paige and Henry providing the emotional drama. A supporting cast that includes Noah Emmerich as the Jennings's FBI agent neighbor Stan and scene stealer Annet Mahendru as Stan's lover and KGB mole Nina has led to other relationships that have made The Americans one of the richest stories unfolding in primetime.
3. Justified (2010-present)
Justified will ride off into the TV-land sunset after its next season, and it will leave a hole as wide as the smile of series star Walton Goggins in the FX lineup when it does. Goggins and Justified lead Timothy Olyphant have been delivering the performances of their careers as U.S. marshal Raylan Givens and his small-town Kentucky childhood friend-turned-enemy, wannabe drug kingpin Boyd Crowder. The series has been loaded with colorful supporting characters — Damon Herriman as hapless criminal Dewey Crowe, Jim Beaver as compromised sheriff Shelby/Drew Thompson, Mykelti Williamson as powerful Noble's Holler leader Limehouse, and Emmy winner Margo Martindale as formidable Bennett family matriarch Mags — but it's the ongoing battle between Raylan and Boyd that opened the series and promises to see it through to the series finale. In the meantime, we're preparing to savor every last bit of the delicious dialogue that has been a hallmark of Justified's run, and will be one of the things we miss most about our (prime)time in Harlan County.
2. Sons of Anarchy (2008-present)
As if the impending conclusion of Justified wasn't harsh enough, Sons of Anarchy, too, is scheduled to end its FX run after its upcoming seventh season. Series creator Kurt Sutter has built such an engrossing world for SAMCRO, the California motorcycle club at the heart of SoA, and its complicated family and club dramas and multicultural rivalries that there's talk of a 1960s-set SoA prequel that might help soften the loss of Sons. But first, we're waiting anxiously, and with more than a little dread, for the conclusion to this epic, Hamlet-inspired tale, which has been shocking, funny, heartbreaking, and always fascinating to watch as it rides towards what seems to be an inevitably crushing conclusion. About that series ender: Sutter has been fearless in making bold moves throughout the show's run, and no one should expect anything less from the ending, which will certainly become one of those series finales we talk about for years to come.
1. The Shield (2002-08)
It was FX's first signature show, the gritty cop drama that not only helped spark the network's reputation, but helped set the standard for the quality of dramas FX would continue to launch. Michael Chiklis's incredible physical transformation to play corrupted cop leader Vic Mackey sparked a new respect for his skills (and earned him a Lead Actor Emmy for the first season). And with its unflinching look at the brutal squad that ran a dangerous neighborhood with its own set of rules, The Shield is also one of the early shows that has helped TV become the go-to venue for storytellers and performers who want to make meaningful dramas. And speaking of series finales, The Shield's was one of the best: tragic for some, but with Vic Mackey alive and forced into an office job with plenty of time to reflect on the ruin he left behind.
So, they haven't all been winners. FX has an envious record of success in consistently launching great new series. But among the network’s rare clunkers, here are the worst:
5. Saint George (2014-present)
It's painful to knock a show that brings Danny Trejo to primetime every week, but this George Lopez starrer relies on obvious jokes (penis-as-wood gags), clichéd sitcom plots (dating after a divorce is hard), and stereotype characters (ooh, TV George's live-in mama is mean and controlling) for its humor (unsuccessfully). Trejo, as TV George's Tio Danny, is far and away the best part of the series, but the big-screen star deserves a better TV venue.
4. Testees (2008)
Two pals work as human guinea pigs at a product testing facility... and let the gross gags relating to every crevice of the anatomy ensue. It’s not that there weren't guilty giggles to be had with Testees, but like a Saturday Night Live skit that goes on too long — an SNL skit airing in the post-"Weekend Update" zone — the one-note sitcom grew tiresome real fast.
3. Dirt (2007-08)
Courteney Cox starred in and executive produced this over-the-top drama about the editor of a celebrity tabloid magazine and her ruthless efforts to get juicy scoop for the rag. It was a trashy show about a trashy topic... not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Dirt needed to take a page from the playbook of Nip/Tuck, which understood you could run full speed with some cray-cray storylines if you had a core group of characters that viewers cared about. That wasn’t the case with Dirt, which ultimately felt like one big effort to prove Cox could play the anti-Monica Geller.
2. Brand X With Russell Brand (2012-13)
There's no faulting FX for trying this idea: the smart, passionate, more-than-slightly-loony Russell Brand ranting about whatever tickled his fancy every week. Could've worked, could've been really great. Except that there doesn't seem to be a middle ground with viewers where the comedian is concerned. People love him or they really, really hate him, and in this particular format — late-night talk show which sometimes included interviews and sometimes was full-on Brand-ranting monologue — the audience, including a lot of critics, fell in the hater pool.
1. Anger Management (2012-present)
Sure, someone was going to host a Charlie Sheen comeback series, but did it have to be FX? From a financial standpoint, the reasoning is clear: Even with a ratings drop-off from the show's record-setting premiere, Management is set to eventually earn as much as $800 million in revenue, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Still, when thinking about the list of series that have aired or continue to air on FX — Justified, The Americans, Louie, Sons of Anarchy, The Shield, It’s Always Sunny, and, yes, Anger Management — you can't help but think of the Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the others" song. And the answer, obviously, is the smarmy, unfunny Sheen vehicle.