Drama and special FX: High octane TV with an intelligent edge

Fox has found a formula for high-octane TV with an intelligent edge... and no need for a massive marketing campaign, says Sophie Morris

If you haven't heard of The Wire by now, boy have you got a lot of catching up to do. Still, given the trend for cosying up with DVD boxed sets of hit American dramas such as The Sopranos or 24 over a wet weekend, it remains just about possible that you are a Wire fan but haven't yet heard of the FX Channel, the programme's home in the UK. In addition to the cult Baltimore-set series, FX broadcasts a slew of American drama, ranging from gritty, topical shows such as Sleeper Cell and Third Watch, to the unashamedly swashbuckling Cops, Water Rats and NCIS.

These newer series are accompanied by indulgent, light sci-fi such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and other longtime members of cult TV's hall of fame, including Highlander, MacGyver and The X-Files. All this is rounded off with knockabout farce in the shape of Reno 911!, a mockumentary police series, and wryly observed animated series such as Family Guy, American Dad and King of the Hill.

Still not convinced? FX fans with the inside track will have tuned into Breaking Bad and Burn Notice, the big new promises of this season, over the past few weeks. And US-politics junkies will have The Colbert Report Election Special on the evening of 5 November highlighted on their calendar –the satirical critique of politics and media is a spin-off to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, a huge hit on More4.

Remember the "50-quid-guy", a phrase coined to describe a man in his forties who wants to keep his finger on the popular-culture pulse but is short on time, hence bunging £50 at a pile of new music every time he enters a record shop? All of them are watching FX. If Nick Hornby had been writing High Fidelity 15 years later, his protagonists would have made a top-five list of their favourite US television imports. I'd wager Hornby's no stranger to the channel himself.

Who dreamt up such a package? It is winning the sort of acclaim many of its shows do individually – that is, word-of-mouth appreciation that develops slowly, rather than the splash of flash marketing. FX is a Fox Entertainment channel, and the network noticed the success of male-oriented channels in the wake of the lads-mag heyday, which were replicating the tits'n'ass'n'guns formula from glossy print on to the small screen.

Fox ascertained that there was an audience for high-octane adventure drama with some grey matter behind it. It decided to steer away from laddishness and create a quality male channel, and FX was born in January 2004. Managing director Jason Thorp describes the channel as "uncompromising television, targeting men aged 25-plus with the best shows from the US, from irreverent comedies such as Family Guy to gritty cool drama such as Dexter and The Wire."

Over five million viewers tune in to FX every month, available on Sky, Virgin and Tiscali. But if you're worried that your cult favourite has tipped over into the mainstream, the truth is, you can still count yourself part of a niche élite. The story of The Wire is testament to this. Just 38,000 viewers tuned in for the first episode of the fifth and final series earlier this year. FX has been behind the show since series one, but, like the channel itself, it has been a slow burner. Set in the urban underbelly of Baltimore, it catches in its net criminals, the law and much in between. It is a demanding watch – it has been called Dickensian, and requires dedicated viewing.

"It launched way before it received the critical attention it now enjoys," says Thorp. "It has been a labour of love for us, standing by the show against very poor numbers initially. Only in the last couple of seasons did we start getting 100,000-plus viewers."

How were FX to follow up such a popular show and ensure no bereft fans cancelled their subscriptions? Season three of Dexter, written around a forensic analyst for Miami police who moonlights as a serial killer, will not air until next summer. Reruns of 24 are long gone. David Simon's The Corner, considered by many to be the prequel to The Wire, and his Iraq drama Generation Kill, which follows a unit of marines during the 2003 invasion, are two key shows coming in January 2009. "Wire fans will not be disappointed," says Thorp.

So far, so laddish, albeit the thinking lad, but FX hopes it is not alienating women viewers. NCIS, Nip/Tuck and Dexter all have a loyal female following, which demonstrates, says Thorp, generously, "that quality edgy drama isn't always male". Of course, a girl can enjoy police thrillers as much as her partner, but FX's weekly movies are chosen to appeal to the core male audience – Die Hard, Desperado, Chopper, Under Siege, for example.

FX's secret weapon, however, may well be its most baffling buy-in yet, The Colbert Report. What's a Fox channel doing pushing a show loved for its satire of Fox News? FX may seem to be a simple action/comedy channel, but it keeps you guessing, as all good TV should.

Four to watch

Breaking Bad, Sundays, 10pm

Brilliantly messed-up tragicomic drama by Vince Gilligan, though could almost be by the Coen Brothers. Watching the string of farcical mishaps befall Walter White (chemistry teacher with terminal cancer-turned-drug dealer) is best done from behind a cushion. 'Breaking Bad' has won two Emmys, and filming is underway on second series.

Underbelly, Fridays, 10pm

A 13-part Oz series based on the 1995-2004 gangland war in Melbourne, adapted from a book by two journalists. Characters include a Mafia boss, drug-dealing brothers, a loan shark, police officers and glamorous ladies.

Burn Notice Sundays, 9pm

Michael Westen is a covert-operations agent taking cover in Miami after fleeing a botched job. Ostensibly an action series, it becomes a poignantly personal tale with first-person narrative and meandering voiceovers. Two seasons and 21 episodes.

The Colbert Report Week nights, 11pm

Stars Stephen Colbert, former correspondent on 'The Daily Show', and nominated for four Emmys, among other awards, since 2005. The fact it has been represented as serious journalism in US lawsuits makes it all the funnier. Credited with popularising the word "truthiness".

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game