Imagine if FX had followed up on shows like "Sons of Anarchy" and "American Horror Story" with..."Dallas."
That's something akin to the shock coming to viewers who love the network for shows like "Louie" and "Archer" when they encounter the new Charlie Sheen vehicle "Anger Management." As many critics including Variety's Brian Lowry have noted, whether you like the series or not, "Anger" is inarguably nothing like all the edgy, innovative fare that came before it on FX.
True to the network's tagline, "There Is No Box," FX has conditioned its audience to expect programming that defies the conventions of the medium. Going back to "The Shield" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," each and every FX original scripted series screamed: Broadcast TV wouldn't dare try this.
There was more to admire at FX than its consistency; there was artistic integrity.
Which makes "Anger" such a departure, one hard to interpret it as anything different than a move to capitalize on the Sheen's notoriety or the built-in audience he brings over from "Two and a Half Men."
But is there more to "Anger" than just a cynical ratings ploy? A business like FX doesn't get to where it is by letting "Anger" slip through as a casual aberration. Certainly not on cable, where making sure programming adheres to the network brand is religion.
Surely there's a hidden variable in FX's calculation here. Let's peruse some possibilities.
Consider that FX may be using "Anger" to make a quiet brand pivot, stretching the limits of what constitutes a series on its air.
Now cable channels adjust their identities all the time, but it's tough to recall an example of one that put a series on its air without deliberately signaling a change in direction. This kind of repositioning is typically accompanied by a marketing campaign explaining and celebrating the shift.
So why the sneak? Maybe because in pursuing life outside "the box," FX has found itself boxed into an unanticipated corner: series as creatively adventurous may not deliver the size of audience that broader fare has delivered to higher rated competing general entertainment networks like TNT and USA. Critical darlings rarely enjoy widespread appeal.
But to simply shout, 'Hey, we at FX are selling out and going broad!" would run contrary to the air of artistic integrity the network has cultivated to date. So FX is forced to tiptoe into that direction, marketing a series that really isn't in the spirit of its previous work as if it is, to keep up appearances.
Yes, some portion of the FX audience who have come to appreciate its distinctive style are going to be confused, but alienated? Perhaps FX feels it has built up enough capital with them to take a flyer on an outlier. Or maybe the network feels it has reached a volume of original programming over its history that even a sharp departure from that history will still be outweighed by the collective tonnage of its past work.
But you could just as easily argue that history is easily outweighed by your most current hit, and "Anger" has the potential to be the highest rated series FX has ever had. Once that happens, a hit can hijack your brand, defining it to the exception of all else.
If that's the case, FX must be betting the number of new viewers to the network that Sheen will bring will outnumber the number of existing viewers who will be alienated.
In doing nothing to communicate the disconnect between brand and "Anger," perhaps FX has made the following hedge: If "Anger" somehow failed and ended after 10 episodes (here's more on "Anger's" 10/90 deal), declaring a new network identity at this juncture would make no sense because there would be nothing else on the air to reinforce this broader brand image. FX may even conclude that the brand identity that preceded "Anger" precluded its success, like a body rejecting a mismatched organ donation.
But in the likelier event "Anger" does well and 90 more episodes follow, then FX could be more comfortable adopting a different branding tack. A few more shows like "Anger" would join the schedule in time, the "box" would be no more and years from now a brief moment of brand whiplash would be forgotten.
Or maybe for all of cable's rigidity toward branding and the accepted wisdom of making sure every series is an outgrowth of some marketed identity, the reality of branding is more elastic. Maybe the innovative programming of the past can sit aside the new pablum without pablum tainting the the rest of the network.
Let's not forget that all of FX's scripted original programming efforts to date are confined to the 10 p.m. time period. No matter how much you invest in marketing and programming for that hour, could it really singlehandedly set a network's identity with more power than what's on FX the other 23 hours of the day?
Those hours are filled with an expensive collection of off-net movies and series, most notably "Two and a Half Men," which just happen to be on at 7 p.m., the last hour before primetime begins. But note that "Anger" is on at 9 p.m., and therein lies what may be really going on here.
Instead of a brand pivot, "Anger" is something of a brand bridge. It's quite possible that the audience coming to FX to enjoy off-brand sitcoms and blockbusters for most of the day is an entirely different audience than the one looking for on-brand edginess at 10 p.m. Wouldn't it be swell to have a property that could better establish some "flow," to borrow the network programmer's slang of choice, that more effectively moves viewers from one daypart to another?
And what better property to transition audience from one daypart to the other than to take the star of the show on at 7 p.m. and put him in a new show at 9 p.m., make it sitcom-y enough to grab sitcom fans from the previous hours but just edgy enough to prepare viewer palates for 10 p.m. Carpet-bomb the earlier daypart with "Anger" ads, and voila! You have "flow."
It's really a variation on a strategy Turner networks have been employing for years, taking the stars of the hit series in its syndication rotation and casting them in new originals. But Turner doesn't have the kind of tonal schizophrenia between dayparts that FX may be suffering.
Whatever the case, let's hope the network's sense of its own identity finds itself in time on firmer footing than its current shaky ground.