deep dives

Let’s Not Be So Quick to Anoint Fargo the Next Great TV Show

Photo: Chris Large/FX

The first season of Fargo was, by most critical accounts, a creative success, and it wrapped up as neatly as its same-titled theatrical inspiration, even though it diverged from its source from the start, pulling inspirations from Joel and Ethan Coen’s whole filmography and mixing them willy-nilly.

The hit man Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a Coen-esque devil or golem figure, was put down by cop turned mailman Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), who felt responsible for Malvo’s crime spree because he’d let him go during a traffic stop a year earlier. Lorne’s erstwhile student of evil, the insurance salesman and two-time wife-killer Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), died during a snowmobile chase after falling into an ice hole on a frozen Montana lake. Gus’s wife and Lester’s nemesis, Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) — who was convinced of Lester’s murderousness even as her male colleagues condescendingly argued against it — directed the final stages of the investigation and ended up replacing her own mentor, the police chief whom Lorne murdered in the pilot.

I should say here that I’m reluctant to even make any complaints, because I do think highly of Fargo. I didn’t miss an episode of its first season, and I watched many sections more than once (particularly the warehouse shootout, which is one of the few truly original action scenes I’ve seen in a while — and horribly funny because of how it uses sound). I’m grateful to creator Noah Hawley for giving Billy Bob Thornton a part that reminds us that he’s a truly great star — the redneck Bogart, I’ve often called him — as well as a great comic and dramatic actor (go back and watch him in the Vegas dinner scene, pretending to be a dentist recalling a Novocain mishap). And I love that it gave one of the best lead female roles on TV to unknown Allison Tolman. Like the then-nobody Matthew McConaughey stunning Hollywood by landing the lead in 1995’s A Time to Kill, this was one of those cases where there was absolutely no percentage in casting an actor unless everyone involved believed she was the best choice for the part, which clearly Tolman was. Keith Carradine, Martin Freeman, Key and Peele, Oliver Platt and much of the supporting cast gave richly imagined performances even when (especially when) the plot didn’t give them much to hold onto. Most of all, I love the patient way the show’s directors stage and cut the action: letting shots sit for longer than TV’s norm, and watching conversations from further back, so that you appreciate how the characters interact with their environments.

So why don’t I love Fargo?

Although I have specific problems with the series — which I’ll get to in a moment — I think it’s probably because, overall, it’s not on the level of a great Joel and Ethan Coen project, and yet it’s the greatest of the Coens’ dramas that the show most brazenly evokes: Fargo, A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, the double-cross-laden gangster thriller Miller’s Crossing (mainly when bullets fly), and Blood Simple (a sunlit noir with its own Lorne Malvo, M. Emmett Walsh’s detective). The Frankenstein-ing of the Coens is Hawley’s idea, not theirs. According to the show’s producers and its star, Billy Bob Thornton, the filmmaking brothers read writer-producer-creator Hawley’s pilot script and signed off on the series, but I’ve heard nothing to indicate that they had any direct involvement. So it’s safe to say that Fargo the series is its own thing, making its own decisions, and that it’s playing a tricky and delicate and in some ways devious game. It’s constantly reminding you of the Coen brothers’ filmography via verbal and visual quotes (a Barton Fink hallway here, a “Friend-o” there), and direct narrative connections that created a Fargo mythology or universe (the supermarket magnate building his fortune on the ransom money that Steve Buscemi’s character stole) while at the same time insisting on its own singularity, and its related right to do as it pleases and be judged on its own terms.

So what is FX’s Fargo? It’s tough to say, and that’s why Fargo the series is in some fundamental way critic-proof. FX’s Fargo is a Coen brothers pastiche, or tribute, or set of variations, and yet it isn’t. It wants us to think of the Coens, and yet it doesn’t. The score sounds like Carter Burwell’s scores, sort of, except when it doesn’t; at the very end of season one, it actually, finally does quote Burwell’s Fargo score, as if to say, “Yes, this is indeed a very long Coen brothers movie, maybe specifically Fargo,” even though it isn’t, or wasn’t. I’m fine with the show not being either-or; I have to be okay with it, considering how often I get up on a high horse about the perils of either-or thinking. But here’s the deal, though: However fascinating the spectacle of all that creative gamesmanship might be (and in season one, it was fascinating), there’s no getting around the fact that Hawley is not the artistic equal of the Coens. That’s not a slam against Hawley: Almost nobody alive can touch the Coens, who are the closest thing to indisputably great and singularly American popular artists that we have right now. But it’s got to be acknowledged, because as marvelous and spectacular as a lot of FX’s Fargo was, there were weak aspects that my colleagues largely glossed over. Why? Residual love of the Coens, perhaps? A craving for another Breaking Bad, which the TV Fargo’s mordant humor, domestic distress, and elaborately choreographed ultraviolence evoked? Who can say?

Bottom line:  As long as Hawley’s show is doing things that are different from, but as aesthetically and philosophically rich as, things that the Coens might do in their films, it’s in fine fettle. The problem arises when the show does things that seem lazier or dumber or more retrograde than things the Coens would do. And unfortunately, the show had many such lapses.

Although the revelation of Lester Nygaard as an entirely conscienceless man was chilling, and played with fearsome unself-consciousness by Freeman, the circumstances of his rebellion were trite: the shrewish wife insulting his manhood in the most cartoony way imaginable; the businessman and his snickering sons bullying Lester as brazenly as Biff muscling George McFly in Back to the Future; the bully’s hot-to-trot widow flouncing around like a Carol Burnett show spoof of a film-noir dame. These and other elements were so cliché that the Coens never would have allowed them in one of their own works. The characters certainly weren’t on the level of Lorne Malvo, a drawling stalker who seemed like No Country’s Anton Chigurh by way of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (a trickster agent of chaos), or Molly, whose unforced decency and ability to shrug off sexism (“It’s actually more of a triangle”) made her equal to, if different from, Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the film. That Lester’s “triumph” in the show’s second half — getting away with murder and taking a second, considerably more acquiescent wife — was indeed presented ironically doesn’t quell the the feeling that, deep down, Fargo does think Lorne Malvo is more of a real man than Lester, and that Lester might have been fine if he’d just learned to emulate Lorne in spirit rather than in deed.

The more I think about the women on this series who aren’t named Molly, the more a latent misogyny seems like the show’s Achilles heel. That the same show could conceive a female lead as rich as Molly (and a supporting character as thoroughly and unthinkingly feminist as her father, played by Keith Carradine) while populating its margins with misogynist cutouts is one of the show’s unintentional mysteries. In the Coen brothers’ films, there are no purely stereotypical characters, male or female, only caricatured eccentrics of singular life force, like the fierce creatures you’d meet in a Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks or W.C. Fields picture. Consider Julianne Moore’s Maude in The Big Lebowski (“My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal, which bothers some men”), or Verna in Miller’s Crossing (“What’re you chewin’ over?”), or Carla Jean Moss in No Country (“The coin don’t have no say”). Fargo the show is closer in temperament to a Robert Rodriguez film — I’m thinking of Sin City particularly, or maybe Desperado — than anything the Coens have given us. It kills people seemingly just to shock viewers who did not expect a violent death at that point. And it’s got its own version of True Detective’s attraction-repulsion to pulp machismo (and Madonna-whore attitude towards women) — but because it’s set in the snowy Midwest rather than in the sweltering redneck South, and does not put machismo in the foreground of the story, the inclination isn’t as easy to spot and then condemn.

I also have a few issues with the show as a show. A lot of times, Fargo seemed to be straining for effect, and there were a number of plot problems, or issues, perhaps, that I can’t entirely chalk up to “dream logic” or the Coen-esque question of whether a string of convenient coincidences suggests the existence or nonexistence of God. They seemed more like indications that Hawley wanted to maneuver his characters into particular situations in order to startle us with spectacular filmmaking or extreme brutality or both, and took some shortcuts to get there.

I won’t complain about believability because, like NBC’s Hannibal, FX’s Fargo isn’t interested in placating viewers that Hitchcock once dismissed as “the plausibles.” That’s not the issue. The show, like certain Coen brothers films, is an example of what the marvelous Telegraph critic Anne Bilson called “The Preposterous Thriller.” It’s fine, at a storytelling level, that Lorne disposed of Don Chumph (oy, that name!) and his mob enemies and the two hit men in the snowstorm with violence so spectacular — like something out of an early James Cameron film — that it would have been the lead story on every newscast in the English-speaking world, not to mention captured on who knows how many surveillance cameras, and yet Lorne always just sort of strolls away from the scene of the crime. And it’s fine, at a storytelling level, that Lester Nygaard’s second wife leaves the house without her coat and is therefore not inclined to object when Lester asks her to don his red parka, or that Gus just happens to stop Lorne in the pilot and just happens to locate his cabin in the finale. It’s all dream logic, perhaps. But if it is dream logic, I wish the show were more overtly dreamlike — I mean Hannibal dreamlike, or Twin Peaks dreamlike, or Miami Vice dreamlike — so that the many, many coincidences and logical lapses felt less like storytelling shortcuts and more like aesthetic or philosophical statements. (“How does she end up wearing Lester’s coat?” “I’ll put a line in there justifying that.”) I want the show to be smarter about its dreamlike craziness: less wanton, more deliberate; more attentive to internal logic, and not as excited to get us to the next blowout set piece. I want it to be as great — consistently great — as the art that inspired it, and that clearly means so much to it.

TV Review: Fargo Season 1