When I started writing for Next Projection, it wasn’t my intention to cover TV shows that were based off of successful movies. It’s not like they’ve had a high success rate to begin with and in both cases, they weren’t even the first attempts at going from one medium to the next. The only difference is that while the 1st attempt at turning Parenthood into a TV show lasted at least one season, the 1st attempt at a Fargo series didn’t even get past the pilot stage with a pilot directed by Kathy Bates and starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco as a still pregnant Marge Gunderson and the show would’ve basically turned her into Columbo. And funnily enough, both this pilot and the current series were/are shot in and around the Calgary area.
And whereas with Parenthood I had never seen the original film, thus allowing me to go into that series with a blank slate, I went into Fargo with the same bias that I had going into Hannibal. One of “I think the film is overrated to begin with and I am fully expecting to hate it.” I know it sounds heretical to describe Fargo that way, especially coming from someone who is a huge fan of the Coen Bros, but Fargo has always been my 2nd least favorite of their films. For the record, I think The Ladykillers is their worst film, which is heartbreaking since on paper it sounds like a great idea. Maybe it’s because I saw Fargo for the first time when I was way too young (11 or 12 I think) and I didn’t know what the Coen Bros. were all about, but while I saw the technical brilliance to it, it never quite connected with me the same way that all their other films did. Personally I think their creative peak came later with No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man, which I think are tied as their best films to date. So my expectations towards a Fargo series were zero with an eye towards the negative.
And like Hannibal, imagine my surprise and delight when it defied all my expectations and ended up becoming my favorite new series of 2014. While everyone was falling over themselves to laud True Detective and Nic Pizzolatto for his deep fried, Southern Gothic procedural/Chambersian existentialism turned pretentiousness, I was far more impressed and enthralled with Noah Hawley approach to the material, which is him asking the Coen Bros “Can I play in your sandbox with your toys?” and them going “Yeah, sure.” The fact that the Coen’s actually have their names on the series should be seen as nothing short of an endorsing seal of approval. And while some might describe the first season as “faux-Coens”, I never got the sense of bad parody or cheap imitation once during the entire ten episode run. Oh yes there are references abound to the majority of the Coen’s body of work (which I’ll list below), but there was always a twist or different approach or interpretation to the references that were used. Noah Hawley and Co. never rested on the laurels of the Coens the same way Bryan Fuller never rested on the laurels of Thomas Harris or Jonathan Demme with Hannibal. And rather than stretch a two hour story over ten, Hawley used the look, tone and spirit of the Coens to jump off and tell his own Mid-West crime story with enough of his own elements to make the series unique enough to stand out from its cinematic predecessor. It’s an incredible balancing act to be as reverent to the source material while not feeling slavish to what came before and Hawley, the cast and everyone else involved managed to pull it off with aplomb and grace.
So what can one talk about with the first season of Fargo? Well, let’s start off with the cast. Beginning with Billy Bob Thorton as Lorne Malvo, him being the first announced cast member brought a huge vote of confidence to the series in its development phase. Not only has he worked with the Coens before (and making him direct links to both The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty), but his chameleonic intensity as an actor helped to bring Malvo to life as a wannabe demonic shit stirrer. He’s if Anton Chigur from No Country for Old Men had an anarchic sense of humor, which helped Thorton stand out from Chigur and other “satanic figures” in other Coen Bros films. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Alison Tolman as Molly Solverson, having the best debut of any actress on TV in 2014. When thinkpieces are written about “Where are all the strong female characters in TV nowadays?”, Molly should be up at the top of that list. While she does end up as the pregnant chief of police by the very end of the season, Molly is not Marge. Molly is as green and inexperienced as you could imagine in her quest to put the pieces together and bring Lester to justice. Not on the same level as Gus Grissom, another police officer who originally wanted to be a mailman, but there was more for her to come up against than expected. Mainly Bill, played by Bob Odenkirk, the new chief of police for Bemidji after the 1st one (Vern Thurman) was killed in the pilot. While initially portrayed as yet another bumbling idiot cop, as the series progressed, you saw that Bill was a good man to a fault. He had such familiarity with the people of Bemidji and so much good faith in them that it was incomprehensible for him to consider that good ol’ Lester was capable of murder. The same could be said for Glenn Howerton’s character of Don Chumph. While the character was a retread of Brad Pitt’s Chad in Burn After Reading, you had one thing for him that you never had for Chad. Pity. The show treated his set-up as the fall guy for Lorne’s blackmailing of Stavros Milos and his eventual execution by the cops with a degree of pity that the Coens very rarely gave to their characters. This twisting of Coen archetypes and Minnesota Nice cliches into empathetic characters that we have a deep emotional attachment to was one of the key distinctions between the Coen Bros. and Fargo the series. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the top notch cast Hawley and Co. assembled from the main cast all the way down to the bit parts and cameos. I know every Canadian’s heart skipped a beat when the pull back from the inside of a mouth being worked on by Lorne in his dentist persona in “A Fox, A Rabbit and a Cabbage” turned out to be Lorne Cardinal (aka. Davis from Corner Gas). And in a scene that I’ll be discussing later, Byron Noble, a Canadian actor that doesn’t have a lot of IMDB credits, ends up stealing the entire series away with a monologue that most actors would kill for.
But for me, the best performance from not only any of the cast members but for the entirety of 2014 was Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard. Now, in order to explain why his performance is the best, I need to make another confession. As great a show as Breaking Bad was, as well as Bryan Cranston’s performance, I never quite got on the whole “Walter White is a monster” bandwagon a lot of people got on. Maybe it’s because of Cranston and the decency as a person he projects. Maybe it’s the residual goodwill/nostalgia of Hal from Malcolm in the Middle (and I’m glad Cranston still acknowledges and embraces that role and doesn’t look back on it as “lesser material”) or the “I did it for me.” moment in the series finale. Whatever the case may be, as despicable as Walter White became as the series went on, there was always an underlying tragedy to him that not only made him one of the best characters in TV history, but what made us root for him to succeed no matter how hard Gilligan went out of his way to make us hate him. And going into Fargo, Martin Freeman had an even bigger image to deal with. From Tim on The Office to Arthur Dent to Watson to freaking Bilbo Baggins, he is “affable” personified. When the concept of the “everyman” was created, he’s what they had in mind. And going in, we all want to root for Lester. We all see ourselves as the downtrodden goober who wishes they could kick ass, rise above our station in life and excel. But rather than indulge the audiences that turned the Tony Sopranos, Walter Whites and the glut of antiheroes of prestige TV in the last 16 years into avatars of wish fulfillment, Hawley forced them to look at what they’re rooting for and turned it against them. It’s as if he read all the “Walter White rocks!! Skyler is a bitch!!!” postings and said “Oh yeah? Choke on this, fuckers!”. As the season progressed, we saw that underneath the flustered, “Oh jeez” public persona, there is actually less to him than we’d like to imagine. And by the time he frames his brother for the triple homicide, gets three more people killed by Lorne’s hand over his acknowledgement of Lester’s transformation and then giftwraps his sweet second wife Linda and sends her to her death after she gives a monologue about being Cinderella and her dreams coming true, we actively HATE Lester. He’s Walter White without the tragedy. He’s just a horrible human being who finally embraced his awfulness with an “Oh you betcha!” So when he falls through the ice in the final moments of the season, it was the “Fuck Yeah!” moment we’ve been waiting for. For a man who’s figuratively been on thin ice for the run of the season, it was only a matter of time before he fell through.
Moving over to the filmmaking and visual storytelling of the series, again we have a style that while it hews close to the Coen’s sensibilities and Deakins’ cinematography (overhead establishing shots, wide two shots that go on for far longer than a normal tv show would do and a languid pace that allows for the scenes to breathe and the tension to build), they’re never constantly saying to themselves “What would the Coen’s do?” They do in fact find their own ways of augmenting what came before and doing it in a new way. While “Buridain’s Ass” had the chase and shoot-out in the blizzard, as well as the almost Biblical rain of fish from the shy, “Who Shaves the Barber?” had the best action sequence you don’t see done in a long time. As we’re introduced to FBI Agents Budge and Pepper (played by Key & Peele), Lorne enters into the building that the Fargo crime syndicate is set up at and proceeds to massacre the entire place. As we hear the carnage, all we see is the camera tracking sideways and up across the mirrored glass of the building before ending that shot with two bullet holes in one pane of glass and another breaking as a guy falls from the building. Now, this was mostly done for budgetary reasons. After the CG heavy snowstorm shoot-out, they probably couldn’t afford to do another expensive action scene. So instead of going all Miller’s Crossing, they let the imaginations of the audiences fill in the blanks as we hear Lorne mow down an entire crime syndicate. It’s indie filmmaking simple, and yet it brilliantly sets it apart from both their cinematic forefathers and their TV bretheren.
But you can have a compelling crime story, a top notch cast, dry humor and great filmmaking and still come up with just an OK show. What really pushes the show into the sublime is its theme and ultimately what the story is all about. Hawley has said that the show is about “the best of America coming up against the worst of America”. Which is certainly seen throughout the first season, with Molly and Gus clashing against Lester and Lorne and with Stavros Milos being granted the American Dream only for him to abuse and then ultimately lose it and his son. It is confirmed that the world of the Fargo film and the world of the Fargo series are the same place. And it shares the Coen’s moralistic worldview of “If you transgress, you will be punished.” as well as the hand in hand influence of divine intervention and dumb luck. If Lorne hadn’t hit that deer and crashed his car outside of Bemidji in the snow, none of what happened (for good or ill) would have happened. It’s a cosmic game of chess with normal, decent people as well as horrible human beings as the various pieces. The series also has a theme of storytelling throughout its run. From anecdotes to brain teasing riddles to one key scene that I’ll get into detail later, the various characters are always telling stories to each other as a way to either help or hurt others in what they’re doing. This is even reflected in the episode titles, which are all references to various parables, Zen Buddhist koans, a famous riddle and philosophical paradoxes. Below are the episode titles and what they refer to.
The Crocodile’s Dilemma- A logic paradox in which a crocodile has stolen a child and promises the parent(s) that it will return the child if and only if the parents can correctly predict whether or not if the crocodile will return the child.
The Rooster Prince- A Jewish parable in which a prince goes insane and believes that he’s a rooster. He takes off his clothes, sits naked under the table, and pecks at his food on the floor. The king and queen are horrified that the heir to the throne is acting this way. They call in various sages and healers to try and convince the prince to act human again, but to no avail. Then a new wise man comes to the palace and claims he can cure the prince. He takes off his clothes and sits naked under the table with him, claiming to be a rooster, too. Gradually the prince comes to accept him as a friend. The sage then tells the prince that a rooster can wear clothes, eat at the table, etc. The Rooster Prince accepts this idea and, step-by-step, begins to act normally, until he is completely cured.
A Muddy Road- Based off a Zen Buddhist koan. Two Buddhist monks are traveling down a muddy road on the way to the temple. Along the way, they come across a woman in a silk kimono and sash who is unable to cross the road. One of the monk’s offers to help and then carries the woman in his arms across the road. This infuriates the other monk, but he keeps it to himself until they arrive at the temple. He finally lets loose by saying “We’re not supposed to go near women, especially young and beautiful ones. Why did you do that?” To which the first monk replies “I left her by the road. Why are you still carrying her?”
Eating the Blame- Based off another Zen Buddhist koan. Circumstances arose one day which delayed preparation of the dinner of a Soto Zen master, Fugai, and his followers. In haste the cook went to the garden with his curved knife and cut off the tops of green vegetables, chopped them together, and made soup, unaware that in his haste he had included a part of a snake in the vegetables. The followers of Fugai thought they had never tasted such great soup. But when the master himself found the snake’s head in his bowl, he summoned the cook. “What is this?” he demanded, holding up the head of the snake. “Oh, thank you, master,” replied the cook, taking the morsel and eating it quickly.
The Six Ungraspables- Referring to another Zen Buddhist koan, it’s the five senses and the mind.
Buridan’s Ass- A philosophical paradox in which a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed evenly between a pile of hay and a trough of water. Assuming that the donkey will go to the thing that is closest to him, it will both starve to death and die of thirst since it can’t make a rational decision whether or not to choose one over the other.
Who Shaves the Barber?- This is in reference to the “barber’s paradox” that’s attributed to Bertram Russell, although he said it was told to him by someone else. Suppose there is a town with just one barber who is male. In this town, every man keeps himself clean-shaven, and he does so by doing exactly one of two things:
1. shaving himself; or
2. being shaved by the barber.
Also, “The barber is a man in town who shaves all those, and only those, men in town who do not shave themselves.” From this, asking the question “Who shaves the barber?” results in a paradox because according to the statement above, he can either shave himself, or go to the barber (which happens to be himself). However, neither of these possibilities are valid: they both result in the barber shaving himself, but he cannot do this because he shaves only those men “who do not shave themselves”. Technically, this isn’t really a paradox.
The Heap- The “paradox of the heap” is basically questioning when does a heap of things not become a heap. If you have a heap of wheat grains and one individual grain is taken, obviously it does not stop being a heap of wheat. But if the process is repeated over and over to the point that all that’s left is an individual grain, when does one consider it to be a non-heap?
A Fox, A Rabbit and A Cabbage- This is one of the more common riddles that everyone knows and that even a child could solve. A man is travelling with a fox, a rabbit and a cabbage. He comes across a river and a raft cross it. The problem is that he can only take one item with him at a time. He can’t leave the rabbit and the cabbage together because the rabbit will eat the cabbage. And he can’t leave the rabbit and the fox together because the fox will eat the rabbit. How can he solve this problem? He goes across with the rabbit, comes back and then takes the cabbage. He drops the cabbage off, then takes the rabbit back across the river and swaps it with the fox. He takes the fox across the river, then comes back for the rabbit and carries it across one last time for a total of seven crossings across the river.
Morton’s Fork- A logical dilemma that has a person facing two equally bad choices. Named after John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, he surmised that if the rich had money, obviously they could pay taxes. But if the middle and lower classes were living frugally and saving up, then they could afford to pay taxes as well. This is more or less an early version of a “no-win scenario”.
Both of these themes culminate in what I believe is the key scene to the entire first season. Coming in at the exact halfway point of the 5th episode of the 1st season, “The Six Ungraspables”, it’s a scene that many people might look at the same way they look at the Mike Yamagita scene in the Fargo film. A side tangent scene that on the surface has nothing to do with the rest of the film and is only there because of the “Based on a true story” “gimmick”. It’s a simple scene where Gus Grissom, having had Lorne slip through his fingers and his chief of police tell him to stop pursuing Malvo and catch the lost dogs, is up at 3 in the morning and can’t sleep. Across the way of the apartment complex he lives in, he sees his rabbi neighbor, Ari Ziskind, is also up and can’t sleep. Ari invites himself over to Gus’ and says the despite the cold winters, the holes in his socks, one kid needing braces and the other sneezing for 3 days straight , he does not complain since they’re all gifts. This then lead’s to Gus asking if he can ask him a question of an ethical nature.
I love this scene so much. Yes on a surface level, it’s a direct reference to A Serious Man, but if you ask me every movie and TV show needs to emulate A Serious Man more often. And the fact that Fargo has that confidence to spend a whole day shooting a scene that could have easily been cut for time, but keeps it anyways shows how great of a series it is. But more importantly it’s everything that Gus has been wrestling with internally (of a good man deciding whether or not to go up against the most evil person he’s ever met) being addressed with a story whose moral is not so easily discernible. But it’s that final exchange between Gus and Ari that clenches it. “Only a fool thinks he can solve the world’s problems.” ; “Yeah, but you gotta try, don’tcha?”
This is especially notable in comparison to True Detective. As well executed as that 1st season was, when you got down to its thematic core, it’s 8 hours of cool nihilism. It’s no wonder that the most famous line from the 1st season is the “Time is a flat circle” assertion. It’s horrible people wallowing in cynical pretentious disparity. Fargo on the other hand sees the disparity, acknowledges it, but decides to keep going forward in the hopes of making things better, which is perfectly summed up in that final line, which would never happen in True Detective.
Whether you’re a fan of the series or still skeptical about it, I hope I’ve been able to convey to you how much I love this show and why I think it’s one of the best shows on TV now. I kinda had to rush this out in anticipation of season 2 that I’ll be covering for Next Projection as we go back in time to 1979 with a young Lou Solverson and the infamous Sioux Falls case that was referenced in Season 1. We have another great all-star cast of character actors galore showing up. And I personally can’t wait to see Bruce Campbell (who actually was in the Fargo film in a “blink and you’ll miss it” cameo) as none other than Ronald Reagan. So here’s to one amazing season of Fargo on the eve of hopefully another great season.
Various Coen Bros. References
Blood Simple- Basically the entire plot of Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) is a remix of the plotline for Blood Simple. Only instead of infidelity, it’s blackmail that Stavros asks Lorne to investigate, only for Lorne to turn around and start blackmail and extort him through Don Chumph. Similar visual shots (bullet holes in door, gun slides across floor, hand reaches through hole for a handle).
Raising Arizona- When Lorne Malvo gets his new identity at the post office, he says “Missed a spot.” to the janitor the same way H.I. McDunnough points it out to another janitor. Lorne reads on toilet. Stavros Milos has same public profile as Nathan Arizona.
Miller’s Crossing- I didn’t catch any overt references in S1, but from what I’ve heard about S2, a lot of elements (mainly the warring crime families) from that film is going to show up there.
Barton Fink- The picture of the beach that hangs up in the insurance office is nod to the postcard of the beach Barton has in his hotel room. Also, deep space shots of the Vegas hotel where Lester crosses Lorne’s path are a visual reference to the creepy hotel Barton Fink stays at in Los Angeles. Kubrick does not own the monopoly on creepy hotels in cinema, although it is a direct reference in Barton Fink.
The Hudsucker Proxy- Again, nothing overt.
Fargo- Obvious with references and archetypes abound, along with a direct link to the Fargo film with a younger, desperate Stavros Milos finding the red snow scraper and the case of money Steve Buscemi buried in the snow.
The Big Lebowski- “White Russians Special: $4.95” inside diner.
O Brother, Where Art Thou- June Carter version of “Pale Wildwood Flower” played in opening of “The Six Ungraspables”, Stephen Root in very small part in later episodes
The Man Who Wasn’t There- Billy Bob Thorton direct link to film. Reidenschneider Cleaning Service is not to Tony Shaloub’s character.
Intolerable Cruelty- Nothing overt, but Thorton also shows up, so it counts.
The Ladykillers- Nothing that I can see, but given that it’s their worst film, I’m OK with everyone ignoring it. If you want to stretch it you could say Colin Hanks’ involvement, but I’m not.
No Country for Old Men- Lorne Malvo is basically Anton Chigur with an anarchic sense of humor. Reserved parking spot for Mike Zoss at pharmacy is not to both Mike Zoss Pharmacy in No Country for Old Men as well as the Coen’s production company. Shot of Gus in bed after parable scene.
Burn After Reading- Don Chumph is Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) in Burn After Reading.
A Serious Man- Parable scene between Gus and rabbi neighbor is straight out of A Serious Man.
True Grit- Since it’s a Western, I didn’t see any references for that film here. And Inside Lleywn Davis was probably being shot at the same time, so I’m not counting it here.