Image Credits: Gramercy Pictures/FX

The Fargo Question

By Joe Gates - Aug. 14, 2017, 8:00 AM

In a blog post that’s now almost two years old, Barry Sisson—the founder of Indie Film Minute—weighed in on the escalating debate about the superiority of film or television. He concludes with a “coffee vs. tea” outlook, but also asserts that film may be a higher art because “without the luxury of time, a story must be distilled to its essence.” For most stories, I’m inclined to agree with him. We never needed, for instance, the episode of Breaking Bad in which Walter chases a fly around his laboratory for most of the runtime. “Fly” is entertaining, but not quintessential to the overarching narrative, and it was only written because Vince Gilligan was strenuously over budget and needed to shoot a cheap episode.

So, when FX announced their decision to adapt Ethan and Joel Coen’s 1996 movie, Fargo, into a TV show, there was some uproar raised by those who considered the picture to be untouchable. But that was five years ago, before anybody knew that the series would go on to be a hit. The production of the series may never have been attempted were it not for showrunner Noah Hawley, who knew that Fargo is not just any other story. He and FX were making quite the gamble when the project was officially greenlit, but it has since paid handsome dividends.

Of all of the Coen brothers’ eccentric films, Fargo is the most massive, the most open, and has the most distinct landscape (not counting No Country for Old Men, which is not a tale of their own device). And, importantly, it is wholly self-contained. Many of its scenes take place in snowy, borderless wastelands. It opens with a flurry of white and a barely visible road, as if the only way to get there was to arrive after an endless car ride in a dream. There’s a sense that the Minnesota wastes could go on forever and that the outside world is an untouchable myth. Everyone in this tiny universe belongs right where they are and cannot escape it, except for the roving criminals who enter and launch the string of murders in the otherwise peaceful region.

Hawley takes a vastly different approach than the Coen brothers did in his portrait of Minnesota. It is still as magically self-contained, but skillfully blown wider and deeper. He invokes the barely visible landscapes of the film when needed, but less often. Instead, he and his directors opt for grander, clearer, and larger shots of the many vistas the northern region has to offer. It often makes the characters feel smaller, and their tragic predicaments seem, strangely, both more dramatic and more trivial. The updated soundtrack, often lead by a punchy drum kit, sparingly uses the haunting score of the film to great effect, and the blood-drenched set pieces are right up there with television’s best. The recent finale of the show’s third season is a gorgeous example of how all of this comes together: instead of putting the audience in the middle of a confrontation, director Keith Gordon pulls us back into a panoramic view. The sky, towering over a cluster of vehicles, dominates the shot, but in the middle, two small figures make a fatal decision. It’s less visceral, but more exemplary of the nature of Fargo. The characters are woven together in a tapestry much larger than they know, and the framing of the shot captures that perfectly.

The characters are where some of the most notable differences and similarities fall between the two members of the Fargo canon, but they all sprout from the loose formula that Hawley imported from the film. There is always a backbone populace made up of pleasant, almost caricatured Minnesotans and Dakotans. There are always sinister outsiders who enter the small northern towns and facilitate the violence that inevitably unfolds. And there is always a police officer—usually a woman—whose inherent goodness is the only leg up she has against her idiosyncratic adversaries.

The characters in the film are quiet (the somber criminal Gaear, who has a significant amount of screen time, speaks just sixteen lines) and generally normal people whom you usually wouldn’t bat an eye at—unless they’re “just funny looking,” à la Steve Buscemi. The personalities in the FX anthology, however, are a bit more talkative. The lengthier scripts are handy when the show is running through its police procedural moments, but it is at its most powerful when applied to Hawley’s verbose, mythical, and philosophical villains. The series is known as a platform for some of the best acting talents around to try on their “Minnesota Nice” accent, but as a crime drama, there are also some darker positions to be filled.

Billy Bob Thornton, a drifting agent of chaos, is like a less scary, funnier Anton Chigurh in the show’s first season. David Thewlis also delivers as a grimy, white collar predator in the most recent run of episodes. But the one who steals the show is Bokeem Woodbine, who plays the unflappable, theatrical Mike Milligan in the second season. Woodbine’s limitless energy and humor affords the series some of its best and most distinctive moments. You could watch the man launch into his metaphoric monologues all day, and he would only get funnier with time. He would also prove himself to be the least likely of the three characters to fit into the Coens’ film. The trio—which elicited Emmy-nominated performances from each of their players—are written in a style completely alien to the original script. This may be the largest gap between the two media, and was also crucial in bringing the TV show to its own creative heights.

The ultimate success of FX’s venture could also be attributed to the anthological format. Each season features its own characters on its own timeline, with crossovers few and far between. If Hawley had opted for a single cast of characters across multiple seasons, the show would be unsustainable, if possible. It would certainly have episodes like Breaking Bad’s “Fly,” which would be entertaining, but not what the Coen brothers would have wanted. So, compared to longer-form television narratives (e.g. Bones, which ran for twelve seasons), Fargo can actually be considered on the short side. The pacing is as quick as the film, there are more characters whom we spend more time with, the plots are more complex, and each season is wrapped up after a tidy ten episodes. And there lies one of the greatest achievements of the movie: it created a world whose essence is so omnipresent, so discrete, and so inspiring that multiple other stories have been cultivated and gathered from it. With that being said, a question looms: do we really even need the film anymore?

Of course we do. It is, as I’ve written, different than the show. It’s slower and quieter, which may be to the chagrin of those who revel in a high body count, but that’s not what lends something artistic value. At the end of the day, the two may even find themselves to be in different subdivisions of the larger crime drama genre. The original Fargo would never be considered noir by genre purists—cinematically, it follows little to none of the noir staples—but the tone and behind-closed-doors crime that pass through each component of the picture are clear-cut influences from the Coens’ earlier excursions in neo-noir, like Blood Simple. The show, in comparison, does not carry on the tradition. In fact, it’s taken more tonal cues from sources more modern than its predecessor, and adapted them to work with the originality of the Fargo universe. Thus, the series and the film become more and more incomparable in terms of quality. The pair vary in style, writing, and tone, and lo! we’ve arrived back at coffee and tea.

The series Fargo need not concern itself any longer about being trapped in the shadow of its predecessor. Rather than attempt to escape the gargantuan silhouette during its three years on air, it has instead set up shop alongside its parent material. They are distinct but not totally separated, and the world of Fargo as a whole has adapted to become a force more imposing, ambitious, and stirring than ever before.

Joe Gates is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. There, he follows his passion for storytelling by studying English and creative writing. His earliest memories are of reading—and sleeping with—his favorite books, and he suspects his final ones will be similar.