In the age of too much TV, Great shows are increasingly swamped out by the multitude of merely good ones. It’s getting harder and harder for us to decide which series to dedicate our precious spare time to. For the full article on Peak TV, what it means and its consequences, click here.
For reviews of our other current top-rated shows, see our posts on The Leftovers and The Americans. We believe these series are well on their way to establishing themselves as more than merely Great products of their age, but as stable members of the pantheon of All-Time TV Greats.
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It’s a red tide, Lester, this life of ours […]. If you don’t stand up to it, let ’em know you’re still an ape deep down where it counts… you’re just gonna get washed away.
Lorne Malvo, Season one
Aren’t great characters awesome?
You know that feeling of excitement and discovery when coming across characters unlike any we’ve been exposed to before? It’s a bit like getting to know a new friend (or enemy). A character that feels different and new can have this magnetism that just keeps you hooked – the series can be so-so, but you’ll keep watching just to know what he or she gets up to.
Well, Fargo is positively packed with those characters. And that’s not all it has going for it.
In this age of Great dramas, FX Network’s violent, existential black comedy may feature the very best writing on TV. Of my top series of 2015, it’s the one with the most individual elements going for it: a tense and gripping story, offbeat characters, dark humour and fantastic dialogue. It’s also easily the most cinematic show around, with every episode providing the rich texture and scope I associate with a Great movie experience.
When the anthology series was announced I, like most, was sceptical. See, I adore the Coen Brothers – they are my absolute favourite working directors. Them, and anyone attached to a Superman film. But of all their ace movies, Oscar-winning Fargo was never my top pick. I really didn’t think its story needed retelling, even with a twist. Its universe, a bizarre and delightful mix of decency, murder and pitch-black humour, felt nicely self-contained and not in need of re-exploration.
I was so wrong. Let me confirm the buzz. Fargo is a masterpiece. Two seasons in, after beating True Detective’s first season to the Emmy for best mini-series, this dark, wickedly hilarious show is the real deal.
1. It’s familiar, yet original
Far from being a rehash of the Coens’ original, its first season turned expectations on their proverbials and delivered a spectacle that paid homage to the Coens while feeling fresh and exciting. The Minnesota setting is an obvious callback (and one declared in the series’ title) but while it takes place in the same world as the movie, this drama is entirely its own thing. The tone is Coen-esque, but the story is connected to the movie by only the barest of threads.
The main similarity with the Coens is the sense of a strange and off-kilter world that’s the stage of weird coincidences and dire consequences. One that is quirky, violent, dangerous and funny, often at the same time. It’s also kinda ominous, as we’re reminded that even in their funnier movies, the Coens’ universes are places where Bad Things happen.
2. Lorne Malvo is one of TV’s Great creations
In the Coen’s worldview, tragedy and violence can occur with terrifying unpredictability. But on occasion, their films feature a more calculating form of Bad Things happening. No Country For Old Men’s Anton Cigurh and Raising Arizona’s Lone Biker of the Apocalypse are deliberate, unstoppable forces of doom – living embodiments of senseless, bloody havoc striking at random. Yet as dangerously inscrutable as they may appear, these totems represent something entirely more systematic – the inexorable advance of Fate.
And in this worldview, Fate is rarely kind. In keeping with the law that entropy awaits all things, wherever these characters appear, all that is left in their wake is chaos.
Take Lorne Malvo for instance, played with laid-back malice by Billy Bob Thornton. An original creation of showrunner Noah Hawley, season one’s most memorable character is a chilling manifestation of the purposeful arbitrariness of Bad Things happening. A freelance hitman, Malvo arrives by mere coincidence (?) in sleepy Bemidji, Minnesota and begins to casually involve himself in local affairs, unleashing a torrent of grotesque, mindless violence upon the woefully underprepared town. What makes the character so interesting to me is that he appears to be motivated solely by his own amusement at watching the mayhem unfold. One of the Great pleasures of Fargo’s first season is Malvo’s sheer delight at watching what happens when this quiet town and its inhabitants are ripped from their simple existence and thrown into a world of murder savagery.
Gleeful as Malvo may be in causing violent mischief, there is a deeper point at play. His meddling in the town’s affairs is about proving that even the civility of rural Minnesota is no match for the primal barbarity of human nature. Can he goad these peaceful simpletons into embracing their inner predator? In his words:
Your problem is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t. We used to be gorillas. All we had is what we could take and defend.
And the spiral of madness he unleashes on this quiet corner of Midwest would seem to prove him right.
Thornton’s languid magnetism and this mix of amused philosophising and casual brutality make Malvo one of TV’s most fascinating creations. He is at once a terrifying threat and a frequent vehicle of dark comedy. He is the Great hook of the first season.
3. The writing is incredible
Noah Hawley (who personally wrote all of the first season’s episodes) is an absurdly meticulous writer and his control of tone is masterful.
Here’s a show where the characters’ philosophies and motivations are laid out with such precision that I always feel aware of the stakes in any given scene, the potential outcomes of every encounter and the way each situation fits into the story as a whole.
That’s not to say the script is on-the-nose. On the contrary, almost every line of dialogue is artfully layered and packed with subtext. And this is pulled off with such clarity that, unlike with season 2 of True Detective, I never felt like I was scrambling to catch up with a convoluted plot. Instead, I was carried along a unique and exciting journey, sometimes gently, sometimes violently, but always assuredly. I was with Fargo all the way to the end.
That’s what happens when a writer understands the fundamental importance of conveying the characters’ motivations. Understanding what drives each player means we are able to grasp the ways in which different motivations may clash and the various permutations each encounter might have.
But don’t think this means you’ll be able to predict where it’s all going. In an interview with TV critic Alan Sepinwall, Hawley says that he wants the series:
[T]o feel like real life, with all its messiness and coincidence, where things don’t add up in a storybook way.
Fargo has a central conceit (which it shares with the movie) that it is based on true events, recounted exactly as they occurred out of respect for the dead. This gives Hawley licence to take all manner of bizarre, unexpected turns in a way that keeps us on our toes, constantly guessing and as such, fully engaged.
I frequently found myself transfixed, so involved in the on-screen proceedings that even on a rewatch, a character’s mere crossing of the road would have me nervously holding my breath, terrified of some random punishment raining down on a favourite.
It’s fucking tense, man.
4. It’s funny!
Amidst all the suspense, Fargo never forgets that one of the main reasons we love the Coens is that they’re hilarious. This textured world is also one where Funny Things happen with blessed frequency. The characters are as offbeat and colourful as you could hope for, with the full array of hapless yokels, incompetent crooks and philosophising scumbags you’d expect from the best Coens’ outings. As malevolent as it is, Lorne Malvo’s shit-stirring is a frequent source of hilarity. With Fargo, even the most intense, bloody moments can be punctuated by comedy.
5. It got even better in season two
Remember when TV’s other prestige anthology series True Detective was gonna be The Greatest Thing Ever? Yep, I used to be that guy. I’d tell anyone that would listen (and many that wouldn’t) that TruDec was a genuine masterpiece, one of the best things I’d seen on TV since Zeus-Of-Television The Wire. But when season two proved that TruDec’s Great debut had been a fluke, I began to worry that Fargo might go down the same route. Because, well, that’s all that’s left to worry about now that the world’s been fixed.
Instead despite the change of cast and setting – it takes place in the late ’70s – Fargo has managed to maintain everything that made its first season so Great. And then improved upon it.
The plot is as darkly funny and unpredictably violent as its first, yet not without warmth at its heart. Recurring character Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson in a powerhouse performance) conveys the quiet decency, modesty and unwavering sense of duty that represent the best aspects of rural Minnesota. With such a sturdy emotional core to the story, we are made more keenly aware of the brutal impact of the swirling chaos that engulfs Lou and his loved ones.
And although Lorne Malvo doesn’t make an appearance, season two does not lack for colourful villains and philosophical hitmen with a Code. In particular the contemplative enforcer Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) is every bit as funny and threatening as any character in the first season. His musings on human interactions are among this show’s highlights and what he lacks in sheer badassery, he more than makes up for by being the most eminently likeable of villains. Lorne Malvo may be Fargo’s best creation but Mike Milligan is no doubt my favourite.
And did I mention it’s got UFOs? Weird huh.
So watch Fargo now. It’s got more tonal variety than anything else on TV, it’s rich, complex, funny, cinematic, dark, philosophical, violent and hopeful in equal measure. It has some of the best writing and the very best dialogue on television. And while, unlike The Leftovers, it’s not yet a 100% shoe-in for my All-Time Greatest Shows list, I will say this: at this point in its already remarkable run, Fargo quite simply could not be any better.