Every FX Original Series, Ranked
FX is a vastly underrated television channel. There are other prized pigs networks that we shower with praise, but the Fox offshoot has been producing fantastic shows since the days AMC was still just "American Movie Classics." So, to honor the latest wave in the FX renaissance, I decided to rank the many shows the network has produced over the years.
In case you haven't read my HBO or Netflix show rankings, here is how this works: every few months, I watch at least three episodes of the latest batch of FX shows, and rank them according to overall plot, narrative arc, character development, and dialogue. For the purposes of this ranking, I tried to avoid shows that have aired only on FXX, as well as anything unscripted. Let's get into it.
I could say a lot of things about this Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence car accident hitting a train wreck as it crashes into a cruise liner, but there are a lot of shows here, so just know that the New York Times called it “labored and unfunny,” and said the lead actors “look miserable” possibly because the actors “know bad writing when they must recite it.”
42. Anger Management
This is a really shitty Charlie Sheen show with dialogue that makes Two and a Half Men seem like Deadwood. Somehow, possibly on a dare, FX ordered 100 episodes of it. Sigh.
41. Saint George
Completes the trifecta of terrible sitcoms based around a big-name actor from the '90s.
40. Son of the Beach
Back in FX's early days, this show (executive-produced by Howard Stern) was a send-up of Baywatch, in the most obvious fashion. The Pamela Anderson-spoofed character is named B.J. Cummings. One of the other characters is named Porcelain Bidet. The titles of different episodes include “From Russia, With Johnson,” “Penetration Island,” and “In the Line of Booty.” Unless you are a 14-year-old boy from the '90s, this is not a good show.
The show version of a giant thank-you card from FX to Leary for Rescue Me, and not in a good way. Did no one think to tell him that early-'90s rockstars didn’t look like the Ramones and Bowie? That it was all grunge and flannel and shit? The entire thing is like an old guy at a dive bar telling you that you don’t know what real music is while he creepily stares at your girlfriend and fixes his hair with a switchblade comb.
In 2008, FX thought it’d be rather chill if it green-lit a show in which two cash-strapped roommates sell their bodies to a drug-testing facility that essentially tests medication on them. This medication eventually makes them fart. That’s pretty much as far as things go.
Bobby Moynihan is very funny on SNL. Bobby Moynihan’s ex-con, gay, white rapper character on Chozen is not very funny. Even Method Man can’t help, and he wrote Tical.
There are very few shows ever that have captured tabloid journalism in a way that feels fresh and interesting. Monica from Friends and her crew on Dirt are not one of those shows.
A strange show that purports to take a bold stance on eating disorders by infusing humor into the food-based struggles of four Brooklyn friends in 2005 (“Buy real estate!” I just shouted at the TV for no reason), but ends up just being kind of funny and kind of sad. Also, every episode I watched had a post-mortem breakfast scene, à la Sex and the City, but with a black cop bulimic, a bisexual aspiring singer anorexic, and a dude who sprays detergent on pastries.
34. The Comedians
Celebrities playing kind of themselves is just a thing now. Episodes does it. Curb Your Enthusiasm obviously did it. Entourage did it. I mean, Louis C.K. does it on this very same network. But the whole point of shows like that is to entice the viewer with the thing they think they know to be true about the actor and refute it, or extend it, or just push the envelope in some manner. Billy Crystal and Josh Gad don’t really do that. Mainly, they just kind of annoy each other and make jokes only a CCD teacher would describe as “edgy.” I couldn’t get past episode three.
If you enjoy shows featuring deadpan edgy comedians not from America who seem to relish making you somehow feel guilty for not laughing when they make jokes involving having children with terminally ill people, this is the one for you.
Think Beavis and Butt-Head, but the opposite, somehow. But don’t think about it too long because it’s not really worth it.
31. Over There
Steven Bochco’s (NYPD Blue) series about the Iraq War aired during the thick of the war in 2005, and received a ton of criticism from active-duty soldiers for its inaccuracies and general foolishness. And watching it now, after seeing much better depictions (which, admittedly, like Generation Kill, had the benefit of more hindsight), it feels even further from the mark.
30. The Bastard Executioner
I’ve never seen a showrunner actually take out an ad in the paper and admit that the audience thought his show was “meh.” So, a tip of the cap to Kurt Sutter for doing that. Unfortunately, his audience was right. I was so damn excited for this thing, too, but it was all over the place. Do you like incredibly graphic violence among warrior knights in 13th-century Wales? Well, good, because there is a lot of that. Do you like love stories? Good, that is also a thing in this show! What about religion? Put it in there! Watching each episode confused me more than the last, and, frustratingly, made me want to continue watching, because I felt like I was just too stupid to “get” it at first. And then I started reading other people’s opinions of the show, and realized that no one was getting anything -- including the writers. Sutter is clearly a good guy, so here’s hoping his next project doesn’t resemble a book report on 13th-century Great Britain that a 16-year-old wrote while Game of Thrones was playing in the background.
Aidan from Sex and the City, but as a down-on-his-luck compulsive gambler who somehow lost a million bucks. This show came out in 2003, when shows didn’t have to be as good as they are now. It is perfectly OK, especially thanks to some humor from Craig Robinson, who plays his buddy, but unfortunately for Aidan, now that the quality tide has risen, no one has time for perfectly OK shows from 13 years ago anymore.
Yes, the main characters have a certain perverse chemistry in their roles. But not sexually, of course, as the show revolves around them not having sex anymore. Still, you believe they like each other, and that keeps things afloat for while. But you can only watch a somewhat real depiction of a marriage for so long before you realize other shows have flying dragons and lots and lots of sex.
27. Lights Out
I think I was one of the only people in America to watch this show when it first aired. I dug the plot line of the aging boxer who knows he has pugilistic dementia but still wants to figure out a way to take care of his family because his shitty brother spent all his money. Upon rewatching, the show has plenty of faults -- villains are obvious, soap-opera elements exist -- but you still want to root for Lights, and watching him kick the crap out of people is weirdly satisfying because you know he loves it even though it’s killing him. The parallels to the NFL nowadays are scary, actually, but that just makes it all the more prescient. Even so, I’m not sure I would’ve stuck around for a second season.
26. The Strain
I have a pretty strong stomach for the Outbreak/X-Files genre of movies and TV shows, but the pilot of this Guillermo del Toro show seemed ridiculous even to the likes of me, with hilariously serious dialogue and some pacing issues. But it gets better -- actually, much better -- and by the end of the first season, you’re just sort of along for the pulpy, campy, kind of silly ride, aside giant, ugly, no-sex-organ-having vampires, Nazis, Walder Frey, and our hero Dr. Goodweather, who is essentially House if House worked for the CDC.
This show had all the elements to be wildly entertaining -- a Breaking Bad-like quality of the good person eventually turning evil, a fairly fresh theme that also steals from international headlines in a way that would make Law & Order proud -- but it never really got me that far along. For one, unlike Homeland or Narcos or other shows that often take place in other countries, Tyrant does the old-school move of making everyone speak English, always. This is basically laughable at this point in television. Two, the main character is just not that likable. Or maybe he’s likable, just not that interesting. He’s the boring doctor son, and you just never feel like he’s committing to the intensity and danger building around him.
24. You're the Worst
(Note: Upon further review, I have moved this show several spots higher because it is actually quite amusing. I am sticking by my crappy zucchini stick analogy though to the bitter end.)
Like fried zucchini sticks, the show is not bad, even kind of good at times. But, also like fried zucchini sticks, you feel absolutely no compulsion to ever order it up on your own. You will consume them/this show if they are there, and you might even have a good time doing it (particularly the Ferris Bueller villain fight from season one), but afterwards, you’re going to realize that they’re really just an excuse to eat ranch dressing. Or at least the zucchini is. That analogy really started to fray at the end.
God, this show is really actually funny at times, in an absurdist, dark manner Jason Gann pulls off spectacularly in his crappy dog suit. My problem with the show is rather basic: I spent half the time caught up in trying to understand how the dog character did certain things if he really was just a dog, and the other half not really caring about the half-assed plot. But I’m a huge supporter of the Calvin and Hobbes-style magical realism, and this show is a totally suitable thing to put on when it’s late at night and you have to do something while eating a shit ton of food from Jack in the Box’s Munchie menu.
22. The Bridge
This has all the elements of a strong show (remake of a Scandinavian hit! Murder on the border of Mexico and the US! A pretty detective with issues!) but has never been satisfying. I watched the entire first season ready to tell everyone how much I loved it for tackling complicated issues relevant to what is going on in the world right now, but at the end, I just didn’t really believe the plot or the reveals. Season two is better, at times much better, more direct, and less concerned with propping up some floppy subplots, but I still get the sense that I’m watching a pretty good show that should be great.
There is lots to like in this strangely beautiful Louis C.K. produced, Jonathan Krisel directed company from Zach Galifianakis. Galifianakis flunks out of clown school in France and ends up back in Bakersfield, California, with a French wife who openly hates him and a weirdly deadpan insurance woman who befriends him. Louie Anderson plays his mom. Galifianakis plays his own twin brother. How much you like this show will entirely depend on how much you enjoy The Man Whose Name I Refuse to Type Again’s style of comedy. I am a fan of said style, and so I found the first season to be a somewhat relaxing, funny, and often sad at a clown who really can’t make people laugh.
The first season of this show is absolutely addicting. You can crush through it in a day, easily, depending on your work schedule. Glenn Close is fantastic as Patty Hewes. And Rose Byrne is... weirdly cast as Ellen Parsons, but that’s fine! Anyway, the second season doesn’t quite have the same oomph, but you’re still there with the past/present timeline. By season three, you’re sick of it. Apparently, there were two more seasons after that.
19. American Crime Story
Why hadn’t anyone thought to do this sooner? The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first season of Ryan Murphy's true crime series, was a smart behind-the-scenes look at the biggest trial of the '90s. I was hooked from the very first episode, enough that I started rereading Jeffrey Toobin’s book along with it (and, you know, ranked every character according to the accuracy of each actor's portrayal). It's too bad that the second season, based around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, isn't supposed to come out until 2018.
When this show first came out, it was a breath of fresh air. It aired right as I graduated from college (and went to grad school), so I had plenty of time to make room for it every week. Christian Troy was one of the best characters on television -- charming, sketchy, amoral, but kind of loyal in a screwed-up way. The only issue: it just kept going on. And on. And on. By the fourth season, I was only halfheartedly watching, and I didn’t even finish the series out. So while I give Ryan Murphy a ton of credit for the place it started, it kind of felt like the show was just treading water by the end.
One of my co-workers proselytizes for this show in such an aggressive manner, I thought he might have helped fund it or something. [Ed. note: he didn’t.] Apparently he's just a large fan of dark and brooding British period pieces featuring Tom Hardy uniquely grunting affirmations and occasionally growling.
Taboo is an entertaining show though, and digs into some weirdly authentic material: the War of 1812, a fight over real land on Vancouver Island, dwarf-led funerals, etc. It is worth watching for two reasons: the bear-like energy and mannerisms of Hardy and the preening about during East India Company meetings led by Jonathan Pryce. Oh, and David Hayman as trusted, booze-happy Hardy manservant Brace.
16. The Riches
One of those weirdly underrated shows that somehow got lost in the mix in 2007, it essentially tells the story of a family living the American dream, but as con-artist gypsies. And I’m not going to tell you anything else, except that you should watch it immediately.
15. American Horror Story
I know, I know. People LOVE this show. Multiple people -- when I told them I was reviewing all of the FX shows -- highlighted AHS as their favorite. Those people now officially make me nervous. This show -- and to be fair, I only saw episodes from the first five seasons -- is delightfully insane. The first season was slightly boring and conventional, but then things really took off, and I found myself enjoying Jessica Lange and her weird Boston accent and dangerous attitude. Plus, all the other CRAZY-WEIRD shit I can’t even get into. So let me just say that I can understand where the obsession comes from, but I’m just not feeling it myself.
What ever happened to this little gem? The Shield's creator made a show with Ocean Eleven’s screenwriter, and it is essentially a buddy-cop show, but set in Ocean Beach in San Diego, and sort of a cop show, if both of the cops were living paycheck to paycheck and not actually cops. I missed it when it originally came out, but it has elements that remind me a lot of Justified -- weird, unique villains who only seem to make sense in that place, and one-off procedural elements that make episodes stand alone, but enough of a thread to keep you wanting to get to the next one. The back-and-forth between the partners is smooth, and you see pain without it slapping you across the face in bold font. Unfortunately, the show never got an audience and was canceled after one season. That is a damn tragedy. Bring it back, FX. DO IT FOR ME!
13. The League
Everyone expects me to love this show so much, which I feel like is either an insult or a compliment, depending on who is delivering said verdict. On a whole, The League is funny -- it was early on the whole damaged-bro-hang atmosphere, Ruxin is essentially the non-animated Cartman of the show, Rafi is just the best, and once it sorted itself out, it became a very solid pick to watch right as you go to sleep. Now, this is for a couple of reasons: 1) there isn’t much in the way of intensity and murder to give you nightmares, and 2) the stakes are so damn low, it doesn’t matter if you fall asleep. And maybe partially for that reason, and partially because seven seasons is SO many for anything, it sits here.
Nothing is smooth on this Norman Morrill show, and I mean that in a good way. The professional criminals featured on the show don’t trust each other, no crime goes off without a hitch, and tension is palpable everywhere. Andre Braugher, the lead actor, is fantastic. The New Orleans setting feels as bumpy and troubled as the characters. And yet (!!), once again, this show (which is technically just a miniseries) didn’t garner enough of an audience for FX to extend its run, so I’ll just encourage you to spend a weekend watching my man Braugher do his thing and, sadly, move on.
11. Better Things
Pamela Adlon is often referred to as a Louis C.K. heir or disciple or some other teacher-student reference. Although you can see that connection in some elements of Better Things (of which Louie is an executive producer and occasional co-writer), the entire thing feels fresh in its own way, with the seemingly small goal of showcasing the highs and lows of just trying to survive as an older actress raising three daughters and taking care of her mother on her own. The series provides powerful commentary on culture, kids, feminism and the strange sexuality of plunging toilets makes it worth watching.
10. Sons of Anarchy
Bike gangs. The IRA. Other bike gangs. Doctors. Unpublished manuscripts. Kurt Sutter’s show was a beautiful, uneven mess, almost from the start, and -- much like the bike gang it followed -- you pretty much had to love it or leave it. I chose to stick with it through some pretty pointless middle seasons and some decently horrendous individual episodes, which often felt like they were just hitting on three or four themes each time: shirtless Jax, murders, and Clay’s hands hurting. But the show was ultimately worth it, and the final season (and episode) satisfied almost all of my lingering questions in a way that series finales so rarely do.
9. Rescue Me
The actually good Denis Leary show on FX. Rescue Me came out in 2004 and centered around firefighters in New York, and it never turned away from the horror of 9/11 and what it did to firefighters in that city on an emotional and sometimes physical level. It was a funny show (Leary is a comedian, after all), but the fact that it centered around tragedy and wasn’t afraid to expose the ragged edges and make you cry as much as it made you laugh made it all the stronger.
Yes, there were issues: middle seasons that seemed to go on forever and resolve nothing, dumb pranks and subplots, uninteresting characters thrown into the mix only to die off. But hidden underneath those dick jokes and corny lines was a real sense that Leary and crew were telling an important, brave story the only way they knew how. And more often than not, that was enough.
8. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Do me a favor: go back and watch the first two seasons of Always Sunny and tell me if they weren't way early in doing original, daring, fresh comedy in a style that almost every other "edgy" comedy show following it would try to copy for the next 10 years. I don’t even care that the last few seasons have been extremely hit-or-miss. These people and the show that they came up with on a bar napkin are national treasures. Cue Nic Cage.
"Karate? The Dane Cook of martial arts? No, ISIS agents use Krav Maga." -- Sterling Archer
I never watch this show on time. I never feel particularly compelled to pull it off my DVR. And then, randomly, something will hit me, I will start the show, and I won't stop watching until I've seen every single new episode. No character is as hilariously cocky, misinformed, petty (his escalating answering-machine messages are one of my favorite things on the show), and yet undeniably talented as Archer. If he was some sort of bumbling spy, the show wouldn't work because it would fall into slapstick-stupid humor, but Archer refuses to conform to those limitations, and we are all better for it.
I love this show. I love how weird and specific to Atlanta it feels. How the larger narrative arc of the show unfolds at its own pace, leaving plenty of room for entertaining and disturbing detours. How Paper Boi is introspective and thoughtful and a little bit sad even as he continues to gain success and fame. How Lakeith Stanfield, who plays Paper Boi’s roommate Darius on the show, just might be one of the greatest characters to come along in the past ten years (sample quotations: “I think if we spent the time we spend thinking about not spending money, spent that time on spending money, then it'd be time well spent” and “AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen’s sex record.”) How Donald Glover’s character, Earn, refuses to be boxed into any neat characterization. You watch him succeed and struggle in equal parts. He fucks things up just as often as he fixes them, and he never asks for your sympathy. Atlanta is the type of show that feels fundamentally different and fresh. And that’s before we even start talking about Zan and “sneakies.”
"I've been accused of being a lot of things... inarticulate ain't one of them." -- Boyd Crowder
Elmore Leonard's books are basically written television shows. Meaning they fly by on the backs of tight dialogue and just enough narrative to push you along to more tight dialogue. He was once asked what his secret was for writing such readable books. "I just skip the boring parts," he said, because he is a legend.
Anyway, Justified was based on a book of short stories Elmore Leonard wrote, and -- when it first came out -- a traditional, basic law-and-crime show. Each episode had a small "whodunnit" element to be solved, but the backbone of the season focused on Boyd Crowder, aka one of the five best characters ever on television, and his family. But once the show cleared its throat of that first basic season, the criminal world in and around Harlan, Kentucky, opened up, and the show morphed into something special with an uncanny chemistry between Boyd and Raylan Givens, the protagonist. I don’t want to compare it to Deadwood just because Timothy Olyphant was also in that, but it does feature a quiet lawman and an exquisitely articulate bad guy, plus a cast of side characters who are willing to scheme, cheat, and kill in creative and damaging ways. If you can only watch one season, skip right to season two to behold Margo Martindale's character, Mags Bennett. And beware if she offers you a drink.
4. The Shield
In 2002, the whole antihero thing didn’t exist. And then came this show, on this random network, which I'm pretty sure was still just running WWE fights. At the time, Vic Mackey, its protagonist, was the greatest, most complicated character on television outside of The Sopranos. You felt dirty with him when he and his crew slimed and blackmailed and murdered their way out of things. But you rooted all the same. Also, it is widely known that The Shield has the greatest series finale in the history of series finales. Comeuppances are handed out, and they all feel right and absolutely earth-scorching. Even if this show doesn't make as much sense or have the same impact now in the context of all of our fantastic TV shows 10 years down the road, for its time, it had but few equals, and none of them were on basic cable.
"You can't just drift through life and hope that love is going to float into you like plankton into a whale's fucking mouth." -- Chloe
What other show completely demolished all the tropes and clichés and everything else that comes with creating a television show? What other show captures its main character in such a perfect, unflattering yet authentic light, and refuses to shine it anywhere else? What other show continues to push those boundaries and experiment with the form, all while basically being about an older white male comedian and his struggles in life? Normally, a synopsis like that would get you laughed out of a pitch meeting, and yet, when Louis C.K. brings his katana blade of humor and insight to the genre, nothing feels more exciting and alive and dangerous.
2. The Americans
What with the current political climate and the ever-increasing skill in which its put together, this show has now gone from a slow-building juggernaut of tension and 80s nostalgia, to one of the must-watch shows across all networks. What a strange and beautiful idea for a show: two Soviet agents living among us in the 1980s, doing terrible things to undermine our country, and yet we can’t help but root for them. The growth of The Americans has been nothing short of astonishing in the last few seasons. For that and last year’s particularly strong fourth season, it deserves a spot much, much closer to the top.
"We're put on this Earth to do a job. And each of us gets the time we get to do it. When this life is over and we stand in front of the Lord, you try telling him it was all some Frenchman's joke." -- Betsy Solverson
Considering there are so many good shows on this network, you would think that this would be a struggle for me. That I would have been going back and forth in my mind about this; that was never the case. Fargo is not just the best show on FX. Fargo is one of the best shows of all time.
Its creator, Noah Hawley, has taken a world started by the 1996 Coen brothers film and expanded it, starting with the first season, set in 2006, and a prequel set in 1979. Each of the seasons features well-intentioned folk, bad folk, and the cluelessly amoral in between. Each element of the show is done so well, from the Coen brothers callbacks, to the suspense and tension and unflinching violence, to the stories within the stories, to the staggeringly beautiful writing. Hawley is an immensely talented writer, and this second season in particular had no shortage of quotations I want to print out and put on my wall, from Lou Solverson telling the story of the pilot during the fall of Saigon, to all of the words Karl the lawyer speaks, to Dodd Gerhardt telling Ed his own private belief on women, to Betsy's immediate classic (above) during her conversation about Camus with Noreen. Plus, Molly Solverson is reading The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald -- I loved those books.
If you've never seen Fargo, I plead with you to call in sick on a Friday and spend 20 hours laughing and crying and delighting in it. Ignore my suggestion, and I shall be back with the sledgehammer of justice. Or I'll just keep quoting the show to myself.
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