Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What’s is the best current basic cable network? Why?
Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool
Can there be any other answer than FX? “Pose,” “American Crime Story,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Atlanta” — show after show manages to be a gorgeously filmed, genre-twisting masterpiece that carves out a special place in an increasingly balkanized pop culture conversation. Even when some series’ reach exceeds their grasp — “Legion”, anyone? — at least their greatest pitfall is an overabundance of ambition. It may not make sense, but it doesn’t feel like any show you’ve ever seen before. As a rule, FX shows are allergic to playing it safe, which makes even their most flawed shows that much more fascinating. There’s a network-wide feeling of invention and innovation over there, something in the secret sauce I just have to sample each and every time.
It’s not all prestige dramas, either, which is incredible and refreshing; most cable networks, premium or basic, lean hard on their dramas for critical and cultural clout. But this is the network of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Archer,” edgy, provocative, and formally interesting comedies in their own right, with “Shadows” now joining their number as some of the best sitcoms on air right now. It’s the home of “Fargo” and “The Americans,” too, which alone places it on the top tier of TV networks taking chances and pushing the medium to crazy places. There are other basic cable networks doing some lovely work (I almost picked Freeform just for how vibrant and just plain new they feel), but beat for beat, the winner’s gotta be FX.
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
After suffering through a few years of a wicked “Breaking Bad”/”Mad Men” hangover, AMC has rebounded quite nicely, hasn’t it? “Better Call Saul” is consistently one of the best shows on television, and the network hosts two premium Tim content shows in “The Terror” and “Lodge 49.” (I guess all it takes these days to be great is three really good shows.) FX is right there, but until “Atlanta” and “Fargo” return, it’s still a step behind AMC. I also like what truTV has done in recent years with its shift towards alt-comedy; “I’m Sorry,” “At Home with Amy Sedaris,” and “Jon Glaser Loves Gear” are all good. But if given the choice, I’d watch MLB Network all day and all night.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
Hmmm. Basic cable? For original scripted programming, it pretty much has to be FX, doesn’t it? They have comedies and dramas that I love, plus a steady stream of limited series and, as you might have heard, FX has the movies the movies, FX has the movies! But if you gave me the choice between FX and ESPN? Well, FX sends me screeners. ESPN, for reasons I don’t fully understand, doesn’t send me advance screeners for live sporting events. So if you’re asking me for “best,” it’s still probably FX. But if you’re asking for “most essential” (or something like that), it’s probably ESPN.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
FX hands down for scripted storytelling. The incredible library of greats like “Justified,” “Rescue Me,” “The Americans”, “Sons of Anarchy,” “Baskets”, and “Taboo” which are some of my favorite TV series ever plus “Pose,” “Mr. Inbetween,” “American Horror Story,” “Atlanta”, “Fargo” and on and on. They freaking kill it for excellence in that realm and always have something going I have to watch.
Now, if you ask me for best overall variety of content I do have to tip my hat to Discovery for the wide swath of programming they offer, from Food Network to their core Discovery network, plus true crime destination Investigation Discovery, Science Channel, OWN, HGTV, TLC and Cooking Channel to name a few. I do watch these networks and would be bereft if they disappeared from the basic cable lineup.
Emily VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
The answer, of course, is FX, but I’m going to assume that 500 other people have gotten there first and, thus, go with one of my other favorite networks — Syfy. Yes, the network has a ridiculous name. Yes, it let wonderful shows like “The Expanse” and “Channel Zero” go. But as a genre fan — and as someone who thinks “The Magicians” is one of the best things going — I tend to like Syfy’s stuff more often than I don’t. They still have their duds, but this is a network that will stack the wonderful “Killjoys” up against some classic sci-fi TV reruns. Cable networks are all about cultivating brands now. There was a time when Syfy seemed like it had thrown its brand away. But it’s come back in a big way in the last few years, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com
I’m sure most of us are saying FX, and while that may have been true a few years ago, the truth is that FX’s drama slate, which produced some of the best TV of the last decade, has been on the decline over the last several years. The network has focused more heavily on anthologies and comedies of late, a decision that has resulted in Emmys success and a comedy lineup that is truly unrivaled. But while that is all well and good, and although I still love FX, until the network’s dramas are back up to snuff, I’m going to have to throw my love in the complete opposite direction: The Food Network and its sister network The Cooking Channel.
Offering everything from ego-stroking competition series like “Beat Bobby Flay” and “Iron Chef America,” culinary educational programs like “Good Eats” and “Food: Fact or Fiction,” and deep-fried-and-covered-in-sugar road shows like “Carnival Eats,” these food-centric networks offer up so much variety in their programming that there’s certainly something for everyone. Want a show about cooking with fire? Might I introduce you to “Man Fire Food”? Want to see one man try to eat his weight in food? There’s “Man v. Food” for that. Want to watch people make ridiculously cool cakes? There are multiple shows about it at this point (though I still love “Ace of Cakes” best). Want to visit Flavortown? Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” is still pumping out new episodes even though they all start to blur together after a bit. And this isn’t even counting your more familiar how-to cooking shows like “The Pioneer Woman,” “Trisha’s Southern Cooking,” “Dinner at Tiffani’s,” “Girl Meets Farm,” or any of the others. There are so many food-centric shows right now that I can’t even list them all, but food TV is finally having its moment, and I can’t get enough of it.
Also, did you know Haylie Duff once had a cooking show? Now you do.
Alec Bojalad (@alecbojalad, Den of Geek
The best current basic cable network is FX because of “Pose,” the just-ended “Legion” and the best series: “Baskets.” “Baskets,” for all of its run but particularly in its last season, has a way of making the aggressively normal seem weird and vice versa. It’s clear that the Baskets family is a kind of archetypical American family that really exists – they’re just heightened and the end result is a fascinating mashup of comedy and drama.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
In lieu of redundancy — all the FX praise above is well-earned, and it’s the clear, deserving winner here — I’ll throw a few bones to two otherwise unacknowledged basic cable networks: Comedy Central and SundanceTV. While neither can compare in quantity of quality to FX (which has roughly 10 ongoing series that are very good, compared to seven-ish at Comedy Central and four or so at SundanceTV), they both release consistently strong shows and consistently creative ones. Comedy Central’s biggest slight is its lack of accessibility, which has been flagged as a problem by young-skewing audiences and knowledgeable creators alike, while SundanceTV simply doesn’t have the budget to compete with modern TV’s big boys. What the latter is able to produce despite its limitations makes it an even more standout aspect of AMC Networks’ lineup. If I could only get one basic cable station to get some Disney dollars thrown its way, I’d still pick FX — but hopefully Comedy Central and SundanceTV can find their way to a wider audience, as well.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: TIE: “Lodge 49” and “Succession” (three votes each)
Other contenders: “GLOW,” “Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.