21CF Chats: FX Network’s Jonathan Frank on ‘Mayans M.C.’ and diversity in storytelling

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FX’s EVP of Current Series Programming and Production also talks about “Always Sunny”

Four years after FX Networks’ highest-rated antihero drama “Sons of Anarchy” (“Sons”) bade adieu to its legion of diehard fans, its spin-off is finally here – meet “Mayans M.C.” (Mayans Motorcycle Club), co-created by “Sons” creator Kurt Sutter and writer Elgin James. The Mayans crew first appeared in the original as antagonists of the Jax Teller clan; but over seven seasons, the two gangs slowly became pseudo-allies. With Edward James Olmos and J.D. Pardo leading an almost all-Latino cast, “Mayans” picks up two-and-a-half years after the original series ended in grisly carnage and moves from the fictional northern California town of Charming in “Sons” to the border town of Santa Padre. The series premiere in early September reached 4.6 million viewers in Live+3, becoming cable’s highest-rated series premiere for a drama series in the 18-49 demo since January 2016.

Jonathan Frank, FX’s EVP of Current Series Programming and Production, took a few moments to share his take on what the highly anticipated spin-off has to offer “Sons of Anarchy” fans and why diversifying storytellers can only be a win-win.

Aside from the Marcus Álvarez character from “Sons,” are there other cross-over characters who will appear in the first season?
In the pilot of “Mayans,” there’s a cameo of Gemma Teller Morrow [the Machiavellian matriarch on “Sons” played by Katey Sagal] in a flashback scene where she’s just seen in the background. We’re certainly hoping that a lot of “Sons” fans would be drawn to the show, so it’s a smart and fun way for Kurt to include some of the lore from “Sons” as an Easter egg for the loyal fans.

Why should the audience invest in these flawed characters who are running drugs and doing a lot of bad things?
What makes “Mayans” very compelling is precisely its flawed characters: EZ Reyes [played by J.D. Pardo] and his brother Angel are both doing what they believe is right. EZ is a smart kid on the right track – doing great at Stanford and not at all part of the outlaw culture – but something happens that lands him in jail. The DEA gives him a deal where he has to infiltrate the Mayans club to help take down the Galindo drug cartel. In his mind, he’s doing something that’s for the greater good.

He soon discovers that his brother – who is into the outlaw lifestyle – is also in the club but on a separate mission to unseat the Galindo cartel because he wants to curtail the drug violence in Mexico. Even though he’s a bad guy who shoots people and runs heroine, in his mind, he’s actually helping his people. The motorcycle club culture as portrayed by Kurt and Elgin gives us these morally conflicted characters: principled men who believe in honor, respect and their own code of justice. Underneath it all, they believe they’re helping people.

Jonathan Frank, FX’s EVP of Current Series Programming and Production (credit: Michael Becker/FX)

As with any spin-off, you need to strike a balance between making it different enough from the original series, and yet familiar enough to draw in the built-in audience. How did you tread this fine line on “Mayans”?
Jax Teller’s story from “Sons” is a very personal journey: when he reads his late father’s diary, he discovers a nefarious history to the lineage of the motorcycle club that his dad had once helmed and tries to understand what his dad wanted to accomplish with the club. Through the seven seasons of the show, he’s constantly torn: is he going to right the ship or is he going to extricate himself from the legacy? It’s a beautiful Shakespearean character piece about a guy who is caught between his legacy and living his own life. What Kurt weaved brilliantly into it was the importance of legacy and how important the motorcycle club was to its members and the town Charming, as dark as the club might be.

“Mayans” has all the same emotional turmoil but it’s more story-driven, in that EZ comes into the club with a very active storyline already brewing and he’s not dictating the story. Whereas Jax’s character in “Sons” was the focal point and driver of that story, this is about a character who comes into a world thinking he’s supposed to inhabit one role, but instead finds himself being engulfed into a very different trajectory.

So it’s essentially the same story world as “Sons” but we get to see it from the perspectives of an entirely different family of characters.
Exactly. The reason “Sons” was so successful is because Kurt clearly defined that sense of brotherhood and family in a world where we feel like we live in a disjointed society. The fantasy of having a group of people whom you can lean on and trust through thick and thin is really appealing. “Mayans” has that same element: these are people who would otherwise be castaways in society, but find themselves in a world that welcomes, respects and trusts them. They have each other’s back, they love each other and trust each other.

One special element to the show is the fact that Mayans is about a Latino motorcycle gang in a world where most motorcycle gangs are white, and as depicted in “Sons,” very racially segregated. I think this makes their bond even stronger because they are, to some degree, outsiders in the overall world of motorcycle clubs.

This segues perfectly into a major objective that you had been tasked with several years ago – to increase the diversity ratio amongst directors on FX’s productions. Only 23 percent of FX’s directors were nonwhite males in 2015, but that figure has since risen to 49 percent in 2016 and 53 percent in 2017.
The push to get shows on the air that are created by diverse voices – women, minority and LGBTQ – is very strong because it became very evident to us in the last few years that the more diverse your storytellers are, the more diverse and broadly appealing your shows can be. It also opens up the kinds of stories that you can tell immensely. Not only did we hire female and diverse directors, 10 percent of our episodic television that first year we embarked on this mission were directed by a woman or person of color who was also a first-time television director.

How did your team go about accomplishing this?
When we first tried to tackle this issue, my team set out to book female and diverse directors who are already established and who I know will do a great job. But we soon came to realize that there just aren’t enough of them in the “pipeline,” so to speak. So we decided that we’re going to create that pipeline and start building this pool of directors. Our CEO, John Landgraf, said: “Take chances, take risks. You can only achieve great things by taking risks and making mistakes along the way.”

My team went from our old practice of booking very established and talented directors to finding fresh voices like music video directors, those who have directed impressive shorts on iPhones or YouTube, or those who had directed independent films that haven’t reached a large audience, but who are still brilliant storytellers and by all accounts, had what it takes to bring a compelling story to the small screen. At the time, we became the first network to call the agencies asking for short films or documentary directors who had never directed television before, and we would give them a shot.

How has this initiative affected the network’s results?
After we first tackled diversifying the director pool in the 2015-2016 season, we also aimed to do the same with the showrunners, writers, on-camera performers and the crew. During the first year when we had made a concerted effort to diversify our directors pool, FX went from garnering eight Emmy wins in the previous year to 18 prizes at the 2016 Emmy Awards, which was double the basic-cable record at that time.

Switching gears for a moment to comedy, I can’t believe “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is starting its 13th season! How involved is your team with this season?
Very involved – we read every script, every cut and give notes. One of the benefits of having a show in its 13th season is that the team knows exactly what they’re doing – [director/writer] Rob McElhenney and writers Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton know the show inside and out, they know the story world and what they’re trying to accomplish. Our primary objective here is to constantly keep in mind what the original intention of our showrunners was and to help the current team stay on course.

What can we look forward to this season?
Something I’m personally excited about as an Eagles fan is: there are two episodes that have to do with the Super Bowl, so it’s fun for me to relive my beloved Eagles winning the Super Bowl. In a recent episode, the “gang” were on a Philly to L.A. flight where they tried to beat Wade Boggs’ legendary record of drinking 70 beers in a cross-country flight. This season, the female characters on the show also want to beat this record to prove that women can do take on anything that men can do. It’s an absurdist fun way to talk about the differences between men and women and what people are afraid of in this post #MeToo movement era.

What “Sunny” has always done best is finding things that are happening in the zeitgeist and skewering them. Here we have five sociopathic and self-involved characters who are unaware of their own selfish nature, but they have a brilliant way of commenting on society in a subjective way – they take on everything that’s going on in the world and do it in a funny absurdist way; and they do a fantastic job of that again this year.