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".

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