How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Fargo

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Ted Danson and Patrick Wilson in Fargo. Photo: Chris Large/FX

When FX announced in 2014 that it would air a TV mini-series based on the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo, I felt something between doubt and existential despair. (And, in truth, I was not alone.) Full disclosure: Fargo is my favorite movie. I won’t argue that it’s the greatest movie ever made (I might argue it’s the greatest American movie ever made or, more precisely, the most American great movie ever), but it’s definitely the one that most successfully stimulates the pleasure centers of my particular brain. So, finding out that there would be this other … thing … in the world called Fargo, lumbering around like some kind of golem, made me actively anxious, even angry. Rather than anticipate the show with delight — it was, after all, based on my favorite movie — I worried instead that watching it would feel like that episode of Black Mirror, “Be Right Back,” in which a woman is plagued by the identical-but-not-really version of her resurrected dead lover.

Besides, Fargo seemed, upfront, like a losing proposition. Anything striking and fun about the show could be credited as simply purloined from its inspiration, while anything that failed would be seen as an unsuccessful and clumsy attempt at imitation or, worse, a misguided digression from the original. It’s like watching someone do an Elvis impression: The best parts are always going to be the parts that look most like Elvis, and everything else is all the stuff you couldn’t quite pull off. But I did watch Fargo season one, and I found it both highly entertaining and kind of unbearable. There was typically excellent acting work from a perfectly cast Billy Bob Thornton as the trickster-assassin Malvo, as well as Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks as steadfast local cops. There were many of the quirky beats, striking visuals, and macabre flourishes that I (and, obviously, the series' creator, Noah Hawley) had loved so much in the original film. Here was a show that seemed like methadone for Coen fans. No, it’s not heroin. But it will get you through.

Yet I couldn’t completely embrace the show, mostly because it was full of maddening winks to the movie, in the form of direct quotations and characters who seemed like drag versions of figures from the film: Adam Goldberg as sort-of Steve Buscemi; Allison Tolman as alternate-reality Frances McDormand; and Martin Freeman gamely inhabiting a mutant-clone of William H. Macy. (Hawley has said he rejected the idea of Fargo as a “continuing adventures of” story using the film’s actual characters, which is very fortunate because, if that had happened, I’d have committed suicide.) There was the theme music, which played like a designer-imposter-perfume version of Carter Burwell’s iconic movie score. (“If you liked that theme, you’ll love … these similar-sounding notes!”) And then there was  episode four, when a character apparently discovered the satchel of money left buried in the snow by Buscemi’s character in the movie — and I wailed loudly enough from my sofa to alarm my wife in another room.

Let me be clear: There was nothing about the series itself that wasn’t accomplished, even impressive. It certainly earned its subsequent praise and plaudits. Yet I just couldn’t get onboard. One TV critic I know described season one as akin to fanfiction. Personally, I thought of it more like karaoke: Some of the melodies sounded the same, and you could eventually recognize the tune, but it’s not remotely like experiencing the original. As it turns out, we were both wrong. Fargo, which wrapped up its second, excellent season last night, has blossomed from a valiant and admirable simulacrum into the most interesting aesthetic experiment — and most entertaining show — on TV.

So what happened? Part of the change is in the show itself. Season two is set almost 40 years in the past, in 1979, and so it has a shambling, funkadelic '70s swagger that was never present in the movie. The biggest change, though, is in me as a viewer — I’ve been able to let go and watch the show in the spirit in which it perhaps was always meant to be watched. Fargo the show no longer feels like  just a riff on Fargo the movie — it’s a riff on an entire mythology. Quentin Tarantino’s films often make reference to, and great use of, all kinds of tropes familiar from kung-fu films or war films or Westerns or other genres. Fargo, I realized this season, is a similar undertaking — it’s just that in this case, the genre is Coens. There are still lots of unsubtle and occasionally jarring nods to the larger Coenverse — direct recitations of famous lines (“For a little bit of money”), songs lifted from other Coen soundtracks, a season-finale dream-sequence monologue that’s self-consciously lifted directly from Raising Arizona, and, in one instance, an actor apparently cast solely because he looks identical to a different actor from the Fargo movie. (Also, there’s only one actor and character in the universe who should ever utter the endearment “friend-o.”) But Hawley has broadened the show by branching out in season two to address the larger Coenverse, so these flourishes seem less like borrowed finery than interesting riffs on an entire accepted mythology.  

Which, if you think about it, is the ultimate tribute to these filmmakers. The show accepts as a given that the Coens haven’t just created a distinctive visual style, or a stable of recognizable character types, or a set of consistent thematic concerns: They’ve created all those things, with such richness and abundance that their films now qualify as a genre unto themselves. The Coens may have started out making noirs, or Westerns, or comedies, but now they indisputably make Coen Brothers films. Their work has become a stand-alone genre that exists to be referenced, caricatured, borrowed, even shamelessly strip-mined. And it’s rich enough to inspire not just a spinoff, but an expertly executed ongoing televisual homage.

In fact, I’ve become such a fan of the TV show that I wish it would abandon its source material entirely. The show has its own distinct aesthetic now — its own rhythms and concerns — much in the way that Tarantino has his own distinct aesthetic despite being crafted from a lifetime of absorbing countless B-movies and grindhouse films. I know there’s zero chance FX would ever change the name of one of its most critically acclaimed series mid-run, but wouldn’t you love to see an installment of Fargo set in, say, Miami Beach? Or the distant future? Now that we’ve seen what Noah Hawley can do with Fargo, I’d love to see what he’d do with an entirely blank page. (I guess we will soon enough, as he’s signed on for several new projects for FX.) Fargo the TV show has proved capable of the impossible, or at least the highly improbable: It’s become a worthy tribute to the iconic material that inspired it. But, like any successful offspring, it’s also developed its own distinct and intriguing personality. Which is why it’s time to finally set Fargo free.