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FX spin-off FXX debuts with 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia,' 'The League' & 'Totally Biased'
Three funny shows, but does the new channel have its own identity?
At the summer TV critics press tour, FX president John Landgraf talked about some of the things he might do if he were the Mayor of Television, while acknowledging that he does not hold this non-existent position.(*) Landgraf is among the smartest and most eloquent executives in the business, but at the moment, “mayor” seems too small a designation for what he’s aiming for. Like Walter White(**), Landgraf’s trying to get into the empire business.
(*) Nor is there, unfortunately, a President of Hollywood, but I suspect several networks are trying to talk Bill Hader into making that character — which he debuted to hilarious effect on Sunday night’s James Franco roast on Comedy Central — the center of an ongoing series.
(**) Passing on “Breaking Bad” is the biggest mistake Landgraf has made in the job, but when your batting average is that high, you can survive a huge strikeout.
Tonight at 10 marks the unofficial launch of FX’s spin-off channel, FXX. (FXX had a soft opening on Labor Day with a “Parks and Recreation” marathon.) It’s replacing Fox Soccer on most major cable systems, though it may or may not be part of your specific package, and it’s debuting with a trio of shows imported from FX: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” at 10, “The League” at 10:30 and “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” at 11.
The desire to launch a second FX channel makes sense. Turner has multiple entertainment channels. USA has Syfy as a sibling channel. AMC is part of an expanding family with IFC and Sundance. HBO, Showtime and Starz all have multiple channels (albeit ones that tend to share the same original programming across them). FX has fancied itself a major player for a long time — and its track record over the last decade, which has included “The Shield,” “Rescue Me,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Justified” and “Louie,” among many other successes, suggests it deserves to be one — and needs additional channels to truly become one, especially since most of their shows have TV-MA ratings and don’t get aired before 10 p.m. FX itself has limited shelf space, so why not add more shelves? And why not stock those new shelves with two very familiar — and still, even years after debuting, very funny(***) — brands in “Always Sunny” and “The League,” plus a promising new one in the topical talk show “Totally Biased,” which is expanding from a weekly to nightly schedule with the move.
(***) Reviews in brief: The three "Sunny" episodes I've seen (which do not include the one written by Benioff and Weiss) are excellent, particularly the Dee-centric premiere and the meta episode about how the gang/show has never won (or been nominated for) any major awards. "The League" opens the season with a riotous two-parter set at Andre's destination wedding, which includes the first performance I've seen from Adam Brody (as one of The League's oft-mentioned out-of-town players) in forever, a bunch of amusing cameos and the show's deepest embrace yet of the sheer awfulness of Pete, Kevin, Jenny and the rest of them. (As "Totally Biased" is a topical show, there wasn't an advance episode for critics to watch.)
The way the new channel is launching, though, is odd. The three transplanted shows all aired on Thursdays on FX, but will now launch on Wednesday, with “Always Sunny” and “The League” debuting directly opposite a new episode of FX’s own “The Bridge.” The idea is to move the comedies away from Thursday night NFL games, which dented their ratings a year ago, but viewers are already being inconvenienced by having to find the new channel (or finding alternate viewing methods if they don’t get FXX), and now they’re on a new night, and opposite another show from the FX family. As FXX expands, and as FX ads more original programming to replace the shows that have moved to the new channel, it’s inevitable for their shows to compete, in the same way TBS and TNT originals go against each other. But on the very first night?
Where TBS and TNT have a very clearly delineated comedy/drama split, what differentiates FX and FXX isn’t yet clear. The first three shows are comedies, but the goal is for FXX to have dramas as well, and for FX to keep some of its comedies. Landgraf and other FX executives have laid out the difference as a demographic one, with FXX skewing slightly younger than FX. But “Always Sunny” is a “young” show only relative to, say, “Louie,” as it’s entering its ninth season and more and more of the episodes are laced with jokes about how old the gang is getting and how much sadder their behavior is now than a decade ago.
FX can point to detailed demo numbers to say why some shows are moving and some are staying, but if you don’t have those numbers handy, it’s hard to say what defines one channel versus the other, and which show belongs where. “Archer,” with its Adult Swim style and creative team, would seem like a younger-skewing show headed for FXX, but its support among 18-49-year-olds is broad and strong enough that it’s staying put.
In time, this will all be cleared up. FXX will have a fuller schedule, and viewers will know exactly what’s staying and what’s moving, and what sort of originals to expect on each channel. (We’ll also know whether “Totally Biased” can sustain the schedule of a “Daily Show” or “Colbert Report” without burning itself out.) And the FX development team has such a strong track record over the last 11 years that they’ve more than earned the right to put on more shows, in more places. This first night, though, feels more like an empire staking out new territory and worrying later about how best to use it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org