21CF Chats: Eric Schrier and Nick Grad, FX presidents of original programming, on ‘Atlanta,’ ‘Better Things,’ comedy, new shows

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FX Networks heads into Sunday’s 68th Emmy Awards show with 12 Creative Arts Emmys already under its belt and a total of 56 nominations, the most in its history and the most ever for an ad-supported cable network. That level of achievement doesn’t happen overnight. At FX, not many people know this better than Eric Schrier and Nick Grad, presidents of original programming.

With 30 years of tenure between them and roles that touch shows from the pitch to the air, Eric and Nick have a significant hand in the network’s success. So there are few better to speak with about FX’s new shows “Atlanta” and “Better Things,” the innovation in the half-hour comedy, and the network’s ambitious slate of new and returning shows in January, among other topics.

The reception from audiences and critics for “Atlanta” and “Better Things” is quite positive. What kinds of on-the-ground reactions to the two new shows have you both heard? Anything surprising or memorable?

Nick: For “Atlanta,” it’s been great to get all this great anecdotal feedback, starting from the critics and hearing such overwhelmingly positive, effusive reviews, to great feedback from people we know within the industry. It was great being on Twitter the night of the premiere and all of a sudden seeing GIFs of lines from the pilot that we’ve been living with for a year-and-a-half. That was very satisfying.

Eric: You work on these shows for more than a year before anyone who isn’t within the company sees them. While you have a good feeling for how the shows are coming out and what you think of them, you’re in a bubble. So when the shows come out and you have the type of reaction we’ve had from the critics, which has been extraordinary on both shows, it’s very gratifying to see the talent behind the shows recognized like this.

Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Keith Standfield as Darius in “Atlanta.”

Photo credit: Guy D’Alema/FX

What specifically do you hope audiences will appreciate about both of these new shows?

Eric: With Pamela Adlon and “Better Things,” her perspective and the story she tells of a single-parent actress trying to raise three daughters on her own is very unique and tackles such interesting issues. First and foremost, her goal and co-creator Louis C.K.’s goal is to make people laugh and entertain them. But there’s also an interesting perspective and freshness to them that people have really responded to.

Nick: Beyond being in this “Golden Age of Television,” we’re in this interesting “Golden Age of Half-Hour.” Louis started something and freed people up to make half-hour shows where it’s up to the creator how funny it needed to be, how dramatic it needed to be, if the story needed to be really tight and have all the stories tie together in the end. I think that’s really freed people up to make something that’s feels so wildly different while at the same time being compelling, as you see in “Atlanta.”

Eric: One of the tenets of our brand is our tagline, “Fearless.” We want these shows to be surprising, and both of these shows fit that mold really well. There are not the stories you would expect to find in a half-hour sitcom, and as you watch them, they continue to surprise.

Pamela Adlon as Sam in “Better Things.”

Photo credit: Jessica Brooks/FX

Have you changed the way you assess the viability and appeal of comedies that come your way at FX in light of these recent changes in the landscape and your pursuit of shows that surprise?

Nick: I think it’s just evolved. We’re really fortunate that we can make half-hour shows for a lower ratings number, relative to most other networks that make half-hours. It allows us to judge it on the creative first and foremost before taking a magnifying glass to the ratings. Obviously over time we want all these shows to have a healthy audience out there, but to me, great new half-hours are inventing a whole new language, and I think it takes a little time for things like this to catch on.

What does that look like?

Nick: The way these things go viral and build an audience is through word of mouth. That’s really what happened with “Archer,” “Louie” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” So we have the ability to give these shows time to reach that critical mass we want them to reach, and they’re able to be proselytized and we don’t have to worry about coming out of the box with these ginormous ratings. It lets us focus on the creative first.

Eric: Because the stakes financially are not as high as they’d be on dramas, it enables us to take really big swings at the plate and let shows find their audience, as Nick said, and be original and give it time. Comedy, especially, is very subjective – some people find things funny and some people don’t, and word of mouth and people proselytizing the shows takes time. We usually give comedies a couple seasons to find an audience, and we built a business model that enables that.

Nick mentioned “Archer,” one of my favorite shows. I was thrilled when I heard it won the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program, and I’m so glad it was renewed for three more seasons. Can you talk about how that show has grown? How long did it take to find its audience?

Eric: “Archer” is a very good example of how we approach comedy. We had never had an original animated half-hour. It was an area that we were intrigued with but weren’t could actually be successful in. This is prior to the launch of FXX and having “The Simpsons” there, so we didn’t really have an environment where animation was proven. But it was really just the distinctiveness with which Adam Reed wanted to tell this spy/office show that we responded to. We put it on and it took a little while for people to find it, but now it’s a huge hit. It’s our No. 1 rated comedy.

Looking at FX’s comedy landscape with “Atlanta” and “Better Things” joining a healthy roster of other comedies, where would you like to see the comedy genre at FX go from here?

Eric: We’re going to continue developing shows that are in the vein of “Atlanta,” “Better Things” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” But one area that we are building out is animation. We feel that animation is the place where we can expand our brand in a much more significant way. “Archer” is such a great show and we feel like we have a real opportunity to build upon that. Eventually, we’d like to see ourselves having as many as four half-hour animated shows on our air.

Cyril Figgis (voice of Chris Parnell), Malory Archer (voice of Jessica Walter), Pam Poovey (voice of Amber Nash), Agent Sterling Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin), Agent Lana Kane (voice of Aisha Tyler), Cheryl (voice of Judy Greer), Agent Ray Gillette (voice of Adam Reed) in “Archer.”

How does developing comedies on FX differ from developing dramas and shows in different genres? Are you able to have as much patience and dependence on word of mouth with those shows?

Nick: On the drama side, things have to move quicker, in terms of an audience and word of mouth. I don’t think we’re at the same pace as some of the broadcast networks, which really need things to come out of the gate firing on all cylinders from a ratings standpoint. It’s a bigger bet, a bigger investment, but we try to be as patient as we can. We focus on making the most original, best show we can possibly make, and fortunately we’re also lucky to have the best marketing team in the business. They can do a lot of the heavy lifting for us to get the word out.

Eric: We’ve had a lot of freedom in half-hour because there’s not as much competition. The volume of hour dramas in television has reached extraordinary levels, so it’s just harder to break through in that area. So what we can do is look for shows that are really distinctive, with talent behind them who have interesting and unique perspectives they want to explore. We work really, really hard to help shepherd those shows. For example, we have a show that we piloted last summer called “Snowfall.” Unfortunately, the pilot didn’t come out as well as we would have liked. But we loved the concept, reworked the script, and we just finished re-piloting it. In the television ecosystem, that’s not a normal thing; you don’t usually re-pilot from scratch. It’s an example of how when we believe in something, while we may not always get it right, we always try very, very hard to get it right and may even double-down on it.

January is going to be jam-packed: “Taboo” with Tom Hardy and Ridley Scott, Ryan Murphy’s “Feud,” Noah Hawley’s “Legion,” and the returns of “The Americans,” “Fargo” and “Baskets.” What about the upcoming slate excites you the most?

Eric: We’re really excited about “Legion,” a show inside the X-Men world. We were fortunate enough to collaborate with Marvel and our film studio on it. I think what you’ll see when you watch “Legion” is that it’s its own world – it’s a unique version of an X-Men show created by Noah Hawley (“Fargo”), that doesn’t feel anything like a superhero show. Then there’s something like “Taboo,” which wouldn’t have been something that you would think FX would want to do. It’s a period piece set in the U.K., but it had Steven Knight, who did “Peaky Blinders,” writing it and Tom Hardy starring, who’s also an executive producer and created it with his father Chip Hardy. So while conceptually we thought it didn’t sound right for us, it had great auspices and when we read the scripts, it was captivating. Off those scripts, we decided to co-produce it with the BBC, and I think it ended up turning out really well.

Nick: It sort of feels like each show in the last 14 years begets the next one, and it’s just been a constant evolution. We get really excited about every launch of every show, because it feels like FX is a brand that is constantly evolving and adding new dimensions to what an FX show can be. We’re as excited about the January launch as we are about any launch.

Eric: It’s sort of cyclical. Sometimes you have an opportunity to premiere a lot of great shows and they turn out really well. We just happen to have a winter/spring coming up with a lot of great product in the hopper, and we can’t wait for people to see it.

“Feud,” another FX limited series with big stars, recently started production. How did the genre become such a mainstay at FX?

Eric: The limited series has been great for us. We had always developed shows on the drama side that were long-running character journeys – about 5-7 seasons – and we had a lot of success with “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me” and “Justified.” We would always hear these great ideas come in, but they just couldn’t sustain themselves for that long. The business as a whole had written off miniseries. Then Ryan came to us with “American Horror Story” and said he wanted to do it as an anthology, and he executed it fantastically. It opened our eyes and, we hired an executive, Gina Bailan, to come in and really focus our energy on how to build out our limited series. It’s been really exciting for us, because we can take all these ideas that we normally wouldn’t have bought and develop them. There’s also this talent pool of people in the feature-film world, from writers to directors to actors, that wouldn’t want to sign up for a seven-year series but would do a one-season show that have come in and worked here, and it’s been really exhilarating.

It sounds like it’s a “Golden Age” for FX these days.

Nick: We get to develop shows that we would be watching ourselves, which is great. And we work for a company that allows us to make really bold, big swings at the plate – shows that, on the surface, seem different, weird and original, and they let us do it and they value it. We feel really lucky to be able to do that every day.

Eric: We and John Landgraf have tremendous support from [Chairman and CEO of FOX Networks Group] Peter Rice, [21st Century Fox Executive Chairman] Lachlan Murdoch and [21st Century Fox CEO] James Murdoch to do these shows, and I think it speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit of this company. We’re always encouraged to take risks and challenge ourselves, and we work with artists that also want to take that big swing at the plate. We’re only as good as the people who work here. Our job is to create an environment for really talented people to come and work, and luckily people like Ryan Murphy, Noah Hawley and Adam Reed have chosen to do so. We wouldn’t have any of these shows without them.