Can FX’s ‘Fargo’ Capture the Same Success as ‘American Horror Story?’

This week FX will debut 'Fargo,' a new mini-series anthology designed to capitalize on the success of the format made famous by network sibling 'American Horror Story.' But can the cable network strike gold a second time?

Apr 15, 2014 at 7:08AM

A few years ago FX (a subsidiary of Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) took a risk in airing an anthology series with a rotating cast nestled in the horror genre. The series was American Horror Story and now it's an award-winning hit entering its fourth iteration. Tonight FX is going back to the well with Fargo. Will it receive the same warm welcome?

Risk

Shield

(Credit: FX)

FX's strategy for years was "There Is No Box." Of course if you've ever watched any of its ground-breaking original series, you wouldn't be shocked. Shows like The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia were among the first through the proverbial brick wall, and while they weren't always recognized for their accomplishments, they paved the road for shows like Rescue Me, Justified, and American Horror Story.

Reinvention

Fargo

(Credit: FX)

Given FX's track record with "no box" thinking, American Horror Story wasn't a shock. Bringing back Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy and a cast of top-tier names like Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, and the incomparable Jessica Lange gave it promise. Still critics worried audiences wouldn't be game for a dark horror show and that FX could turn off viewers with an "anthology" series with closed-ended story arcs. Thirty-four Emmy nominations, a handful of wins, and strong ratings eventually spiked those concerns.

Now comes Fargo, which carries a similar premise. It's a 10-part story that blends crime, drama, and humor, the hallmarks of the Oscar-winning 1996 film of the same name written and directed by the Coen Brothers. This time the pair are producers, but openly admit a new team (led by writer Noah Hawley) have done most of the heavy-lifting. Starring an ensemble headlined by Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, the mini-series follows an insurance salesman pushed to his brink until a chance encounter with a hitman seems to give him a way out.

Similar to Horror in style and the movie in tone, Fargo takes place in the same world as the film and at one point will continue a storyline from the original. Also Fargo will not recycle its cast. Should season two be ordered, it will feature a brand new group of faces and a brand new story.

The shorter series system makes it easier for FX and other networks to snag actors like Thornton and Freeman, who want to try television, but don't want the seven-year commitment that comes with a series. Producers also wanted some degree of realism to the series and (rightfully) thought having three different versions of Billy Bob Thornton in the same universe over three seasons would throw that off.

Industry impact

Fargo

(Credit: FX)

As I've written about previously, FX is coming into a transition year with series like Sons of Anarchy and Justified about to exit. A program like Fargo could go a long way in helping to ease that changeover -- aside from strengthening its roster, it also gives the network a strong second-half event series that could reach Horror Story's level of success and buzz.

Fargo will also have an impact beyond FX as this will mark the third "anthology" show (along with Horror Story and HBO's True Detective). If it works (and it likely will), it will continue to show this is a trend with legs. Both Horror and True Detective are smash hits and the closed-ended model is a huge draw to viewers, as well as actors. 

Audiences know there's no room for fluff in these short-run series, so they expect higher-quality writing. Plus, the risk of cancellation is low, so they don't have to worry about getting involved with the show. Unless Fargo continuously underperforms (and it won't), the series will see its full run, and that's a welcomed relief to viewers who are tired of trigger-happy executives.

This is a new type of programming and it's working. The anthology model is all about being able to build a brand and Fargo's entering the arena with an established presence that works in its favor. The early reviews are very positive and those who admitted to going into the show with low expectations were very pleasantly surprised, and now looking forward to seeing how the rest of what amounts to a 10-hour movie plays out.

As a viewer you just have to remember as you watch that it's a slow-burn series. As proven by many FX shows, a slow burn usually ends with a loud and exciting bang.

Cable's dominance

Do you know how to profit off the success of FX and its cable rivals? There's $2.2 trillion out there to be had and currently cable networks own a big piece of it, but that won't last. Click here for the names of companies look to flip the script on traditional TV.

Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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