Over the past couple of days, I’ve been beating the FX drum like it’s my job. That’s because in a lot of ways, it is. As a critic and observer of pop culture, it’s my job to point out people who are changing the game. And that’s exactly what has been doing for fifteen years. Starting as a way to show movies and old TV shows like Batman, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Married…with Children, the channel began to branch out in 2002 with original programs like The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. The three dramas launched a creative renaissance for the channel, which has become so successful that it’s launched a second channel, FXX, for it’s more comedic ventures, as well as a flagship buy of the entire Simpsons catalogue. However, the secret to their success has been a series of cleverly written, well-acted original programs that have helped change the way television is formatted.
Before I begin my near-definitive ranking of the Top Ten Original FX Series, a couple of notes. First, this list will include all series that run on either FX or FXX, so no syndicated shows are eligible. This means the absolutely terrific Axe Cop (an animated show written by a six-year old and starring a Murderer’s Row of comedians) has to be left off. Second, I have not seen every show on the station, so I’m going to have to leave out some well-known programs due to seeing only one episode or less. This means beloved programs like The Americans, The Shield, Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck, Sons of Anarchy, Baskets (despite Louie Anderson’s terrific turn as Zach Galifinakis’ mother), and the criminally underrated The Comedians are ineligible for this list. And third, on top of a summary of why I chose it, I’m offering up my pick for the Best Episode of the Show, which best sums up everything great about the program. With these rules in place, let’s look at the Top Ten Original FX Series.
This one may be a bit premature. Only four episodes of Donald Glover’s passion project have aired as of this article’s posting. However, considering the current route it is following, it is arguably one of the most deserving on this list. Glover’s writing is sharp at capturing the lives of minorities in a specific place (here, Atlanta, Georgia), balancing dramatic beats with side-splitting comedy, and when matched with director Hiro Murai’s gorgeous eye, the show becomes something of a comedic Twin Peaks. Glover’s Earn is the perfect everyman, with facial tics on par with the best of them. Bryan Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi is equal parts bombastic and subtle, trying to make the best out of the lousy hand life has dealt him. However, it’s LaKeith Stanfield’s Darius that steals the show, something between a voice of reason and an idiot savant, nailing every comedic beat he is dealt. And that’s not even touching on the world of eccentric characters that surround them. So yes, the show is still incredibly young, and could go incredibly south at any point. However, based on the strength of these first four episodes, I’m convinced this could be an FX cornerstone to years to come.
Best Episode: “Streets on Lock.” While it’s nowhere near the funniest show of the year, it’s perhaps the one that best sums up the show. It features a deep look at the system and the treatment of black people by the prisons, while not ignoring inherent attitudes amongst the community itself. It features fantastic performances from Glover and Henry. And while not predominantly a comedic episode, it does have its moments, such as when Earn quietly tries to calm a horrified homophobe with the phrase, “You know, sexuality is a spectrum…” It’s perhaps the funniest episode in television history to center on the main characters being booked for murder, and it’s so good, the rest of the show has strived to live up to its lofty heights.
9. The League
The League is a show that shouldn’t have worked. There’s not much to it-just a bunch of terrible people playing Fantasy Football. Essentially, it’s just a small-scale Seinfeld. However, one key decision elevates the material to a more entertaining level: the cast. You see, the creators of the show decided to cast an all-star team of improv comedians, including: Paul Scheer, Jon Lajoie, Stephen Rannazzisi, Katie Aselton, and especially Nick Kroll. Furthermore, they added acclaimed mumblecore creator Mark Duplass as the show’s “lead,” and told the cast to do what they do best: improvise. Giving them basic scenarios and telling them to run with it, the show ended up providing some of the funniest one-liners in television history. However, as great as this cast is, the show’s secret weapon has always been Jason Mantzoukas, playing Ruxin’s (Kroll) disturbing brother-in-law Rafi. Through funny scenarios, multiple football player cameos, and killer pieces of dialogue, The League is a real “Shiva winner” (Side note: the show is so popular amongst my friends and myself, I have modeled my Oscar league on the show, complete with a “Shiva” and a “Ruxin” of our own).
Best Episode: “Mr. McGibblets.” I really wanted to pick an episode with Rafi. However, if there is any episode that’s the perfect introduction to these characters, it’s “Mr. McGibblets.” Featuring Pete’s (Duplass) humiliation, Andre’s (Scheer) obnoxiousness, and Taco’s (Lajoie) lovable stoner hijinks, the episode follows a spa getaway and Kevin’s quest to get rid of a Barney-like nightmare toy by hiring his brother to scare her in a life-size costume. The result? An insane image of a Mr. McGibblets appearing outside Kevin’s window wielding a butcher’s knife. It shows the gang at their very worst, which for us, is their very best.
If you’re like me, your first thoughts upon hearing about a television adaptation of the Coen Brothers classic were, “Oh dear god, why, please stop this monstrosity, the Coens aren’t even involved, what a bad decision.” However, it took all of one episode to change my mind on the subject. From Martin Freeman as a creepy dude sinking into his own inhumanity to Allison Tolman doing her best Marge Gunderson to the especially great Billy Bob Thornton as the suave and philosophic Lorne Malvo. It features countless twists, fantastic acting, and Coen-esque dry comedy. It ended so perfectly, it seemed there was no way to continue the story. That is, until season two came out, and featured all-time best performances from Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Bokeem Woodbine, and Jean Smart. This show continues to dart right when you expect it to go left, push actors to a new level, and above all entertain. There’s a reason the Coen Brothers have signed off on the show, even without their direct involvement. It’s as much a slice of Americana as any one of their movies, and while it may not be as great as what Ethan and Joel have given us throughout the years, but it is something special nonetheless.
Best Episode: “The Crocodile’s Dilemma.” Sure, Season Two was stronger overall, and nothing in the show has come close to Lorne Malvo single-handedly wiping out a 22-person mob in one tracking shot. However, props have to be given to the show’s pilot, “The Crocodile’s Dilemma.” Starting with absolutely zero expectations, the show weaves a Strangers on a Train style murder plot, featuring a nebbish Martin Freeman being dragged into a world of murder by Billy Bob Thornton’s nihilistic hitman, resulting in the death of his rival at Malvo’s hand, as well as his wife’s death at his own hand. It all builds to Malvo’s standoff with police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), which is one of the greatest performances Thornton has ever given.
Westerns have always struggled to find success on TV. For every Gunsmoke, Bonanza or Deadwood, there’s at least five Hell on Wheels. So it was a huge sigh of relief for FX when Justified found success. Inspired by the works of Elmore Leonard, the show follows Raylan Givens (a never-better Timothy Olyphant), a U.S. Marshall reassigned to his hometown after firing his weapon on the job. You see, Givens fancies himself the last of the Western Marshalls, the Matt Dillons and the Wyatt Earps of the world. The show follows Givens’ dealings with the criminal underworld of Harlan, Kentucky. Along the way, he confronts memorable characters like his former friend-turned-rival Boyd Crowler (Walton Goggins), no-nonsense teenager Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever) and criminal matriarch Mags Bennett (Greatest Of All Time Margo Martindale). The show lasted a remarkable six seasons, and cemented itself as one of the coolest dramas on television, even if Olyphant and Goggins never got the attention they deserved.
Best Episode: “Blowback.” As with other choices on this list, I didn’t see enough episodes from the second season, considered the greatest in the show’s history, to pick one of those episodes. However, even if I had, I’m sure I would still pick “Blowback.” It’s tense, it’s well crafted, and it features great performances from Olyphant and guest star W. Earl Brown. It was an indicator of the pulpy greatness to come, and enough to cement it as an heir to the HBO and AMC dramas of old.
6. The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
Technically, this should be higher. What Ryan Murphy, Scott Anderson, and Larry Karaszewski accomplished with their miniseries exploring race, gender, celebrity, and the Shakespearean undertones of the O.J. Simpson case was nothing short of remarkable. In fact, I’m only putting it this low because it only has one season to judge it on. But what a season it was. From comeback performances by Cuba Gooding, Jr., John Travolta and especially David Schwimmer (“Juice? Juice? Juice?”), to the star making turns of Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance and especially Sarah Paulson humanizing the oft-vilified Marcia Clark. Dramatizing the most famous events of the case, while adding background information to humanize each character, from Darden to Kardashian to even Simpson himself. It’s a remarkable achievement, and I’m shocked it came from the creator of Glee.
Best Episode: “Marcia Marcia Marcia.” Sure, “The Race Card” is the best directed episode, “The Run of His Life” is the most investing, and “A Jury in Jail” is the most unique, but it’s “Marcia Marcia Marcia” that’s the episode that best explores the show’s talent. Following the unfair scrutiny applied to Clark’s life as she tried to sell an unwinnable case to an uninterested jury, you see the effect it takes on her as a human being. It’s an incredibly sobering episode, and Paulson sells the hell out of it. And, more importantly, it gave us this gif.
5. You’re the Worst
By far one of the best shows of this decade, the anti-romantic comedy from Stephen Falk is one of the funniest shows in years. Skipping over the awkward season-and-a-half wooing process of shows like Friends, New Girl or How I Met Your Mother in order to focus on the actual act of maintaining a relationship, the show spices things up with one of the greatest ensembles in television history. Not only do we have the King of Facial Cues Chris Geere as the snobby Jimmy Shive-Overly and the remarkable Aya Cash as the cynical and hard-as-nails Gretchen Cutler, we also have Kether Donahue’s spoiled Lindsay, Desmin Borges’ sweet and PTSD-ridden Edgar, Brandon Mychael Smith as the eloquently filthy Sam Dresden, and Janet Varney and Todd Robert Anderson as the unbearable “proper” couple Becca and Vernon (the latter who introduced us to “trash juice”). The first season is humorous enough, filled with biting one-liners and hilarious scenarios for our cast of character, but it’s the second season where it really shines, as Jimmy has to learn how to deal with the revelation that Gretchen suffers from clinical depression. It was going to be hard for the show to come back after such a stellar season, and yet the three episodes we’ve seen so far have already shown that Gretchen’s growth and Jimmy’s (and Edgar and Lindsay) decline are handled maturely and intelligently, with equal parts laughs and tears. It’s a show for the ages, and one of my favorites of all time.
Best Episode: This is a tough one. Each and every episode of this show is deserving of this spot. However, I’m going to have to pick “There Is Currently Not A Problem,” a bottle episode where the characters are trapped in Jimmy’s apartment with a finite amount of alcohol and Gretchen slowly losing control. This is the episode where we learn of her depression, and for most of the episode, we just think that Gretchen’s feeling stress from work. When she finally explodes, it’s painful and shocking, yet it’s still hard to predict the reason for her change in attitude until Lindsay comforts her friend in an emotionally moving scene. It’s brutal, it’s honest, and surprisingly enough, it’s funny. Just like this show.
Of course Louie has to be on this list. Louis C.K.’s mixture of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, infused with the sort of surrealist drama that made Birdman soar, is one of the most entertaining-and sobering-on television. Filled with poignant moments of family drama, surprising cameos, and heartfelt monologues, the show gets to the heart of trying to provide your life meaning, professionally and personally, as Louie tries to handle his divorce, his faltering career, and being a single dad. It’s a little slice of life, filled with honesty and hilarity, and it as helped establish FX as a television powerhouse.
Best Episode: “Pot Luck.” I know what you’re thinking. “There are thousands of better episodes than ‘Pot Luck.’ Where’s ‘Poker?’ Where’s ‘So Did The Fat Lady?’ Where’s ‘Late Show?’” Yes, there are better episodes than “Pot Luck.” But there are few episodes that drive to the heart of the show. Poor Louie ends up at a potluck thrown by a New-Wave lesbian couple and their child surrogate. After being berated by one of the women, and leaves in disgrace. On his way home, he bonds with the surrogate, and she even initiates sex with him. Unfortunately, the sexual encounter causes her water to break, and Louie has to take her to the hospital, which infuriates the lesbians, who berate him in a litany of beautifully worded curses. It’s hilarious, and yet you can’t help but feel bad for Louie, as he once again gets himself into a terrible situation.
3. American Horror Story
We are in a golden age of the anthology series. Essentially taking the one-off style of The Twilight Zone and expanding it to an entire season, the show has provided hours of entertainment in a variety of horror genres, ranging from the truly terrifying to the schlocky and cheesy. Providing career resurgences for a wide range of actresses, like Angela Bassett, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates and especially Jessica Lange, the show is a rarity in the realm of television-an original, emotional, terrifying ode to the horror genre. And its creativity has changed the television game.
Best Episode: “Pilot.” Once again, I know this is not the popular choice. However, if you haven’t noticed, my personal choice for this list is that I prefer the episodes that defied our expectations. That’s the case with the pilot of the show-it told the viewers that this would be a schlocky, cheesy piece of garbage from the man who ruined Glee. Filled with terrifying imagery, family drama, and great performances from Connie Britton and Jessica Lange (not to mention a fantastic introduction to the talent of Evan Peters), this episode was a clear indicator of things to come-and what a thing it was.
2. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
If there’s one show that truly defines FX, it would be It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The first show that defined FX’s new era, the show lives up to the tagline “Seinfeld on crack.” Focused on a group of terrible friends who run a crappy bar in Philadelphia, the gang surpasses that original group. Whereas Jerry and his friends simply chose not to be good, The Gang actively chooses to be evil. Dennis is a scheming narcissist who blatantly harasses (and possibly harms) women, Dee is a self-obsessed, obnoxious monster, Mac is a deranged religious nut who refuses to follow any of his own teachings and likes to work out despite having no muscle mass, and poor Charlie, the most kindhearted of the Gang, is an illiterate paint-sniffing stalker. While the first season explored serious issues and Sacred Cows with an irreverent attitude, the show failed to attract a following. So they decided to add a famous name: Danny Devito as Frank Reynolds. And Devito was desperate to unleash his inner degenerate. This has inspired some of the most hilarious plotlines in television history, and the fact this show is still shocking, horrifying and hilarious eleven years later is a true feat.
Best Episode: “The Nightman Cometh.” There were many episodes I considered for this spot. “Chardee MacDennis” holds a place in my heart. “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System” features one of the most terrible sequences I have seen on television. “Mac and Charlie Die” features one of the funniest images I’ve seen on television. “Paddy’s Pub: Home of the Original Kitten Mittons” features a fantastic sequence of Charlie Day’s insanity. I wrote a scholarly paper on “Who Got Dee Pregnant?” And there’s very few episodes of any television show as perfect as “Charlie Work,” which spoofed Birdman before Birdman even came out. However, any true fan of the show knows that the musical episode “The Nightman Cometh” is the greatest in the show’s history. Showing each of the characters’ flaws as they attempt to put on a play for Charlie’s crush, the episode features a deep look into Charlie’s psyche, as well as allowing for some of the most disturbing musical numbers in television history. “Dayman,” “Tiny Boy, Baby Boy,” and “The Sun Song (Charlie’s Proposal)” each are laugh out loud funny, but Danny Devito’s dedicated rendition of “Troll Toll” has to take the cake as one of the worst phrases spoken in television history. And I loved every minute of it.
Could I have picked any show other than Archer as number one? Well, probably. Any of the Top Six could have taken this spot. However, if you’re asking me which show truly defines FX as a channel, it has to be the animated James Bond spoof presented in the style of Arrested Development. With a thousand jokes a minute, beautiful animation, and the best ensemble on television, Archer has provided more catchphrases and memorable characters than either of its inspirations. H. John Benjamin proves himself to be the greatest living voice actor, giving Sterling Archer a proper swagger and dangerous idiocy, Aisha Tyler fills the role of the voice of reason well, Jessica Walters basically just reprises Lucille Bluth to great effect, and designated Rom Com Best Friend Judy Greer is allowed to go full Monster as Television Treasure Cheryl/Carol Tunt. It’s the funniest show on television, and I can’t imagine any other channel giving this level of freedom to its talent the way Archer has been given. God bless FX.
Best Episode: “Placebo Effect.” More often than not, this is the episode of Archer that hooks people. When Sterling discovers that his cancer medication has been replaced by the Irish Mob, he goes on a “Rampage,” going around town brutally torturing gang members and killing all who stand in his way, to Lana’s (Tyler) chagrin. The episode is filled with classic lines (“What’s cancer?” and “I liked him better when he had cancer.” “What the sh*t, mother?!?” come to mind), brutal physical humor, and pop culture references (there’s an extended spoof of Magnum P.I. thrown in for good measure). It’s raunchy, it’s brutal, it’s funny, and above all, it’s Archer. Side note, I elected not to post any scenes from “Placebo Effect,” because it is impossible to mention Archer without the phrase “Danger Zone.”
That concludes this week’s countdown of the Top Ten FX Programs. What are your favorites? Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!