The seventh and last season of the pioneering cop drama series The Shield begins Sept. 2 on FX. The following night, the network premieres its newest edgy drama, Sons of Anarchy, about an outlaw motorcycle gang. The Shield put FX on the map, and network chief John Landgraf is hoping Sons will be the latest show to keep it there.
“I'm reasonably optimistic that the audience that likes The Shield will like that show,” Landgraf says, “but if that doesn't come to pass, there are other things behind it, and we're just going to keep taking our swings.” But not too many.
“We really don't do too much,” Landgraf says, clearly speaking of quantity, not quality. “There were two original series when I got here, and we've ramped up to eight. I think that is around the theoretical maximum that this network can sustain.” So Landgraf will play the cards he has until next summer.
“We don't really launch that many shows. After Sons, the earliest we may launch another show is next June or July, then the following January.” Projects in the pipeline include new shows from Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy and Shield creator Shawn Ryan, which Landgraf feels will help ensure the continuation of FX's brand of edgy risk-taking.
“If you want to go on the Matterhorn at Disney, and know you're on rails and you can't go over the edge, go to broadcast television or most other ad-supported television,” he boasts. “If you want to feel you're actually on a toboggan, careening down the French Alps and you could go over the side at any point—come to FX.”
While completely different in subject and tone, The Shield and Sons have several elements in common—elements connecting FX's past and present to its future, and embodying the attention-getting blueprint copied by several cable networks since Michael Chiklis' rogue cop Vic Mackey burst onto TV in 2002.
“The FX brand began with The Shield in March of 2000,” Landgraf acknowledges. “I think the channel was an entirely different channel pre-Shield. You can count everything at FX as 'B.S.' or 'A.S.'
“Before The Shield,” he continues, “what HBO was doing—very, very well—with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and Sex and the City was viewed as a phenomenon that could only exist on pay cable.”
Since The Shield, Landgraf argues, building TV shows around more complicated characters and concepts became more common on ad-supported cable TV, and “even on broadcast, with House, and Lost, and others that were significantly edgier.”
The FX lineup of edgy successes—Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck and Damages—is impressive enough, but even the shows that don't pull a big enough audience tend to be noble failures. FX's so-called flops—Over There, Thief and the basically dead The Riches—are a lot more daring, and entertaining, than most networks' successes.
“Some people are going to like some of them, and some people are going to not like them, because they're really distinctive,” Landgraf says. “But the people who like these shows, they really like them. They love them. You have to be somebody's favorite.”
That's why, he says, if he were running AMC, “I would keep Mad Men on forever.” He calls it “a towering work of creative excellence,” though he can't help noting that Mad Men, for all its media attention, draws fewer 18-49 adults than even The Riches did—and many fewer viewers than the five-minute “minisodes” of Rescue Me.
Sons of Anarchy, starring Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal, is being launched while The Shield is still around as a companion show and promotional vehicle. Creator Kurt Sutter served on The Shield as a writer and executive producer, and Landgraf sees the two series as compatible—even if audiences may not.