The 20 Best FX Series of All Time

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The 20 Best FX Series of All Time

Since the debut of The Shield in 2002—due respect to Son of the Beach and the other original series that came before it—FX and its sister network, FXX, have emerged as the home to a number of the boldest voices in television. From Ryan Murphy (the impresario behind a remarkable four series on this list) and Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion) to Donald Glover (Atlanta) and Pamela Adlon (Better Things), FX Networks’ John Landgraf, the programming whiz credited with coin the term “peak TV,” has cultivated a wide range of talents and supported series in a dizzying array of genres. Espionage thrillers, superhero adventures, romantic comedies, legal dramas, cop shows, even the family sitcom and a fucked-up Friends: If FX has a “house style,” it’s to twist convention further than any of its competitors, producing a slate that might be the medium’s best. (For my money, the network was home to TV’s best drama, best comedy, and best limited series in 2018.) And though FX faces plenty of challenges going forward, including the rise of streaming and Game of Thrones’ influence on big-budget TV, its track record—as seen in the 20 titles below—promises continued success in a fast-changing art form. Without further ado, comrades, read our list of the 20 best FX series of all time. —Matt Brennan

20. Nip/Tuck

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Nip/Tuck has aged poorly in a lot of ways, but like Popular, its existence informs most, if not all, contemporary Ryan Murphy (and Brad Falchuk) projects, from the writing to the casting. While The Shield showed what FX was capable of as a cable network in terms of storytelling and writing—and so changed the game—Nip/Tuck showed that FX could push the envelope in other ways, too, with surgery, sex scene, and other, uh, bizarre moments. (And there were a lot of bizarre moments in Nip/Tuck.) But the music was great, the guest stars were greater, and the series was never dull (except for Season Four). Also: Justice for Kimber Henry, the series’ true hero and possibly the closest thing to a “good person” to come out of all this. —LaToya Ferguson

19. The League

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Don’t let all the fantasy football talk deter you if you’re not into sports. For all its NFL-star cameos and inside-baseball terminology, The League, at its heart, is really just a show about a group of friends who like to compete with and talk smack about each other. It’s basically Friends, if Ross and Chandler were allowed to call each other “shit-sippers” on primetime network TV. This semi-improvised show is wonderful, weird and features a bunch of people who are very funny but usually relegated to more bit roles in TV and movies (Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Katie Aselton, etc.). And when it comes to the show’s smack-talking bros, there’s a favorite for everyone, be it crass, sex-obsessed loose cannon Rafi or Kevin and Jenny, who despite occasionally playing the goofy-dad/smart-mom TV-cleaning-product commercial dichotomy, will remind you of all the things you liked about the good relationships you’ve been in. The shortened first season plays more like a TV miniseries and will take you less than an afternoon. It’ll be worth it. —Lindsay Eanet

18. Rescue Me

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From the opening moments of the series when off-color but very funny jokes are made about the amount of sex these firemen have been able to have since 9/11, Rescue Me distinguished itself as the rare series that could easily handle the tragedy and humor that life brings. No show before or since has so eloquently portrayed the long-lasting and haunting effects the attack on the World Trade Center had on those who were the first responders. As the soul of the series, NYFD firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) is simultaneously utterly despicable and utterly lovable. You’ll root for him and you’ll want to slap him. The show had its faults—creating fully realized female characters was not its strong suit—but the raw emotion and huge laughs the show delivered on a weekly basis still linger. —Amy Amatangelo

17. Wilfred

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Wilfred, along with Archer, was one of the brash weirdo comedies that helped FX become a clever stoner alternative to places like Adult Swim, diversifying the network’s slate beyond its edgy dramatic calling cards. The Aussie adaptation of the man-in-a-dog-suit comedy also helped reintroduce Elijah Wood to American audiences after The Lord of the Rings. He was weird, he was funny, and he was so different that it was hard to remember what it was like when he was just Frodo. Stealing scenes from him is creator/star Jason Gann, whose brash yet heartfelt performance made the show just confusing enough for alt-comedy nerds and late-night surfers to get lost in their feelings. Its short but sweet run was destined to be a cult classic and a launching pad for strange and genre-warping shows like You’re the Worst and Man Seeking Woman to follow in its psychotropic path. —Jacob Oller

16. Legion

The last few years have seen, if not the creation of the bat-shit crazy fantasy, at least its blossoming. Shows like Preacher, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Happy! are all packed with the weird, the impossible and the insane, each seemingly trying to outdo the others. But the champion of bat-shit crazy TV is FX’s Legion, whose characters, both real and imagined, meet in an actual ward for the insane. Its first season proved that Marvel is willing to experiment with a very different kind of superhero tale: The story is as much about David Heller’s (Dan Stevens) grasp on reality as it is his struggle for survival. Its second then reached a new level of surreal, with David and his friends working for the shadowy Division III that was hunting them down in Season One. Like all good bat-shit crazy TV shows, every scene feels like a riff on the dream sequences from Twin Peaks. But what really separates Legion from its absurdist brethren is acting and writing usually reserved for the rarified airs of prestige drama. Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza are all given scenes to devour, and Navid Negahban counts as 2018’s best villain not named Killmonger. Creator Noah Hawley’s vision, ambition and impishness have made a comic book show about mental illness both bleak and fun. —Josh Jackson

15. You’re the Worst

It isn’t just that creator Stephen Falk’s dramedy is a rom-com for people who hate rom-coms. It isn’t just that it brings up issues like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, dead relationships, and getting older with the same candid realism that it aims at sex scenes and the absurdity of the Los Angeles film industry alike. It’s that the four leads—Aya Cash’s needy Gretchen, Chris Geere’s narcissistic Jimmy, Desmin Borges’ loveable Edgar and Kether Donohue’s underestimated Lindsay—say and do and make us admit the worst things about our own selves when we watch from home. And for that, this show is the best. —Whitney Friedlander

14. American Horror Story

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Even fervent fans of Ryan Murphy’s high-camp horror anthology American Horror Story would have a tough time defending its later seasons, from Freak Show through Apocalypse. But the first three story arcs—Murder House, Asylum and Coven—pushed the bounds of scary storytelling on television and helped kick off a small-screen horror renaissance. AHS’ evolution since its genuinely terrifying first season debuted in 2011 mirrors just about every major horror film franchise: a shockingly strong start followed by unexpected space shenanigans, complicated continuity callbacks, distracting guest stars, openly humorous installments and the departure of key players (most notably Jessica Lange, Murphy’s muse for the second, third and fourth seasons after her breakout supporting turn in the first). This murderous medley of elements clutters the show, but can’t suppress the glee that a horror hound feels seeing so many well-known genre tropes recycled and repurposed by Murphy and his rotating cast of players, from the chameleonic Sarah Paulson to Misery’s Kathy Bates. American Horror Story may be a big, bloody mess, but it’s still clearly in love with the genre in its title. —Steve Foxe

13. Pose

Pose, from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, is an exuberant portrait of ball culture in the 1980s, a sort of soapy, fictionalized, mad hot rendition of Jennie Livingston’s classic Paris Is Burning, reinterpreted by trans women creatives Janet Mock and Our Lady J. The ensemble cast—featuring the sensational Billy Porter as the silver-tongued emcee, Pray Tell—is full of shape shifters, fierce queens, underdogs, wits, such that its stories of the AIDS epidemic, transphobia (especially among gay men), racism, and poverty in the decade’s gilded New York become an object lesson in the ongoing nature of struggle: a political parable in floral pastels (Mother’s Day) and pearl-hued brocade (royalty), or an ecstatic dance musical of Reagan’s America. “Pull up. Work harder. Triumph!” Pray says near the start of the season, stating the series’ own credo in the process. “If not today, maybe tomorrow.” —Matt Brennan

12. Sons of Anarchy

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Take the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, replace the hooker with a rough-around-the-edges bike club set in the ironically named town of Charming, Calif., add a conscience and things always going wrong, and you have the basic setup for Sons of Anarchy. Kurt Sutter’s gang of motorcycle-riding brothers and their lovingly nicknamed “old ladies” constantly find themselves in hot water trying to do the right thing while bending the rules just a little… which turns into bending the rules a lot. Having the town chief of police in their back pocket, along with Charlie Hunnam as the conflicted vice-president of the club who is carrying on his father’s legacy doesn’t hurt, either. It would be really easy to make the show’s motorcycle club reminiscent of a gang of pirates on bikes, pillaging and plundering with a complete lack of morals, but Sutter resists that temptation and makes the gray area of right and wrong the driving force behind each episode and each decision. —Patty Miranda

11. Archer

The sign of a good show is that it evolves over the course of its run. Archer, which itself is already an evolution from creator Adam Reed’s Frisky Dingo, layers its self-references, constantly reinvents itself, and is never afraid of sacrificing story or character for a single piece of wordplay. Blessed with characters of far more hilarious depth than any ian Fleming dreamed up, not to mention its insattnly iconic tone, style, and voice acting (looking at you, H. Jon Benjamin and Jessica Walter), the parody of super-spy tropes is a masterpiece of silliness, living and dying by a singular unit bound together in one sense of humor. Through all its boredom-beating tangents and constant winks, though, one thing has remained consistent: Archer is one of the funniest shows on television, and is that in a completely different way than any other contemporary adult-oriented animation. —Jacob Oller


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Terriers will always be the one that got away. A cautionary tale about what you name your TV series (was it a reality program about the Westminster Dog Show?), the dramedy ran for an all-too-brief 13 episodes in the fall of 2010. Perhaps it was ahead of its time: Unable to capitalize on the niche audience cable and streaming platforms now cultivate, and before Netflix got into the business of saving cult hits. The heart of the series was the easy, hilarious rapport between former police officer Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and his best friend/former criminal Britt Polack (Michael Raymond-James). The pair forms a PI firm, and their rag-tag approach to solving crimes leads them to commit a few of their own, in addition to all sorts of questionable but entertaining adventures. Logue and Raymond-James are both fantastic actors who’ve gone on to many other wonderful roles, but nothing has ever quite matched the fine work they did on Terriers. It’s well worth your time and money to stream the series on Amazon Prime or FX+. Every couple of years, showrunner Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Timeless, The Unit) teases the idea of reviving the show. So I keep holding out hope that Terriers will be back. —Amy Amatangelo

9. Better Things

Pamela Adlon’s almost experimental comedy has never generated the excitement of its network counterpart, Atlanta, but it’s no less novel for elaborating a multigenerational portrait of women in which sex and romance are not the determining factor in life’s equation. Defined by Adlon’s perceptive direction and poetic ear, Better Things is far more interested in the testy, soused relationship Sam Fox (Adlon) maintains with her mother (Celia Imrie), the wan roles she’s offered as a moderately successful middle-aged actress, and the ceaseless chaos of single motherhood. Indeed, as Sam raises Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward), she emerges as the flawed “Superman” of the brilliant Season One finale: Half mournful and half expectant, she’s committed, despite the obstacles, to squaring the same feminist space for her three children that Better Things does for women on TV. —Matt Brennan

8. Fargo

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The trick of creator Noah Hawley’s anthology series isn’t just that he finds a way to take his source material—Joel and Ethan Coen’s extremely smart movie about stupid criminals—and turn the dial to 11. It’s that he’s done it for three stellar seasons. Each 10-episode installment has created indelible characters that stay with you long after the last tragic turn of events has unfolded. Whether it’s Martin Freeman’s hapless Lester Nygaard in Season One, Jean Smart’s cold and calculating Floyd Gerhardt in Season Two, or Ewan McGregor’s bumbling Stussy twins in Season Three, each season has brought us its own cadre of terrific actors. Hawley also has a knack for discovering talent, including Alison Tolman as the first season’s quietly determined detective Molly Solverson and Bokeem Woodbine as the second’s unforgettable, calmly terrifying Mike Mulligan in Season Two. Hawley deftly explores universal themes like the death of the American dream, the struggle to feel self-worth, and the potential evil that lurks inside many of us. He does this with dark humor, eloquent violence and thought-provoking plot twists. Hawley upends our expectations. Things never unfold the way we expect. And we cannot wait for Season Four. —Amy Amatangelo and Whitney Friedlander

7. American Crime Story

American Crime Story, which dramatizes high-profile cases (the O.J. Simpson trial, the murder of Gianni Versace) from the recent past, finds Ryan Murphy at the height of his powers: Poetic license feeds his creative impulse, while the historical record reigns it in. The result, thanks in no small part to his brilliant collaborators—Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski on The People v. O.J. Simpson; Tom Rob Smith on The Assassination of Gianni Versace—and his starry casts, can’t be dismissed as a ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama. Rather, in two extraordinary seasons, American Crime Story has emerged as a potent consideration of some of the central fault lines—race, class, gender, sexuality—in American life, an enthralling study in the systemic crimes that inform our understanding of justice. —Matt Brennan

6. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Made on a shoestring, with scripts that average about three insults a minute, the exceptionally long-running It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Season 14 coming soon!) follows The Gang, a group of egomaniacal degenerates who run an Irish pub in South Philly: Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson’s twins, Dennis and Dee; Danny DeVito as their dad Frank, and Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney as their friends Charlie and Mac. Storylines have included attempting to solve the gas crisis, attempting to get record-breaking drunk on a cross-country flight, and one heck of a coming-out episode in which Mac uses interpretive dance to tell his incarcerated dad that he’s gay. —Whitney Friedlander

5. Justified

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I’d argue that when FX was at its creative peak, it was because its great TV series were almost novel-esque—watching them shows was like reading an insanely good book, with every episode functioning as a gripping chapter. (A much better thing for a TV show to be than “like a movie.”) Damages, early Sons of Anarchy, and Justified all captured this feeling at its best, and as good and even great as FX shows are now, I don’t feel quite the same way when I watch them. (Fargo is arguably the exception.) Of the aforementioned series, Justified was the only one actually based on a book (an Elmore Leonard novella), and showrunner Graham Yost’s desire to approach the series as such (with a “What Would Elmore Do?” mantra) is a large reason for its success. As flawed as Justified’s Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is, he’s the rare great FX character who fits squarely into the hero mold—albeit roughly, as he’s a more modern-day cowboy—instead of the antihero one. Olyphant is an underrated strength of the series, on top of obvious all-time great performances from Walton Goggins (as Boyd Crowder, the necessary villain to Olyphant’s hero) and Character Actress Margo Martindale. Maybe that’s how the show got away with a country rap theme song. —LaToya Ferguson

4. “Damages

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Glenn Close created one of TV’s greatest characters in Patty Hewes, a lawyer who will do anything (legal, illegal, somewhere in between) for her clients. The series is worth watching just for Close’s nuanced, duplicitous, Emmy-winning performance. Just when you thought Patty was pure evil, she would reveal her more vulnerable side. Recent law-school graduate Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is unwittingly manipulated as part of Patty’s grand scheme. The first season follows the class action case against Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), who has bilked his employees out of their life savings. It’s become commonplace now for TV shows to play with time and the sequence of events—to start at the end and work their way backwards. But Damages pioneered this narrative device, simultaneously confusing viewers and allowing them to put together the puzzle. As the series progressed, Patty’s relationship with Ellen grew more complex and dysfunctional. (For its final two seasons, the series moved to DirecTV.) Just stay away from Statue of Liberty bookends. —Amy Amatangelo

3. The Shield

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Shawn Ryan’s cop drama masterpiece premiered on FX a few months before David Simon’s cop drama masterpiece premiered on HBO. Years later, if you ask anybody which cop drama masterpiece they believe to be the Greatest Of All Time™, they’ll probably say The Wire. That’s fine. The Wire’s laurels are well-earned, but give a little more consideration to The Shield, too, huh? In many ways, The Shield is The Wire’s equal. In some, it is superior; a vivid, graphic entertainment that’s no less profound than Simon’s musings on Baltimorean crime and punishment. The Shield is grimdark stuff from back before grimdark became de rigeur in our pop cultural diet; there are no straight-up good guys or bad guys here, just good guys who occasionally do bad things and bad guys who occasionally do good things. The series is fueled by enough doom to make the Bard himself crack a wry smile, and it’s loaded with dubious morality. We were caught in the thrall of Vic Mackey’s reckless, self-serving corruption long before Game of Thrones made character survivability a guessing game, and Breaking Bad made us root for ethically suspect protagonists. Most of all, though, The Shield put a spotlight on law enforcement malfeasance without irrevocably blurring the line between social critique and theatricalized excitement. —Andy Crump

2. Atlanta

Though it had traces of an anarchic streak, most notably in the memorable departure, “B.A.N.,” Atlanta’s first season read, in the main, as a laconic slice of life, rendering the experience of Earn (series creator Donald Glover), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and Van (Zazie Beetz) in all its hilarious particulars. Its second (or robbin’) season, by contrast, comes as close to understanding the uncanny as any series on television: As directed by Glover, Amy Seimetz, and Hiro Murai, the germ of Darius’ “Florida Man” parable—an “alt-right Johnny Appleseed” forcing his chaotic, angry, even violent fantasies on an innocent populace—bears its strange fruit across 11 arresting, often unsettling episodes, woven from the same materials as fairy tales, folklore, fables, and myths. Only Glover knows where Atlanta will go next, but for now it’s a wickedly funny, unspeakably beautiful anthology of American horror stories, one that reckons with the definition of both “blackness” and “whiteness,” and treats the latter, rightly, as a malevolent force. Ultimately, the series grabs hold of the genre’s brass ring, confronting its audience with a simple, startling, profound proposition: If Atlanta doesn’t scare the fuck out of you, you might be the monster. —Matt Brennan

1. The Americans

Over the course its six-season run, The Americans completed a remarkable evolution, beginning and ending as a blisteringly suspenseful spy drama. Of course, by the time Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ masterwork reaches its devastating conclusion, with deep-cover KGB agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (the magnificent Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) returning to Russia and surveying what they’ve lost, and gained, in the process, The Americans is about so much more than safe houses and dead drops. At once a parable of family, faith, and nation; a pitch-dark examination of the Cold War’s moral calculus; a coming-of-age tale (twice over); a wrenching depiction of friendships formed and betrayed; and an indelible portrait of an American marriage, FX’s pet project was worth every ounce of patience it demanded: We may well remember it as the last great drama of the Golden Age of Television. —Matt Brennan

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