One Thing I Love Today is a daily column dedicated to putting a spotlight on some pop culture item worth your attention. After all, there's enough snark out there. Why not start every day with one quick shotgun blast of positivity?
Noah Hawley is a True Believer.
There is no reason whatsoever that a television show based on Fargo should work, but after finishing season two of the FX series, I am blown away by what he's accomplished and by the sheer force of his love for Joel and Ethan Coen.
Homage and inspiration are similar, but not the exact same things. Homage is fine, but I think you can only go so far with it. Inspiration, though, is something else. Real inspiration is a springboard to something new, something that is genuinely yours. One person looks at something and sees and processes it a certain way, and someone else sees it and is spent spiraling in a totally different direction. Hawley is the one guy out of a hundred who would have seen this series this way.
They even tried one time before this. There's a pilot from 2003 where Edie Falco played Marge Gunderson, the role that France McDormand won her Oscar for in the original movie. It made no sense, though, and as strange a comparison as this is, it's the same problem that exists with Die Hard movies. When the point of the original film is that you've got an ordinary person dropped into extraordinary circumstances, then you can't keep dropping them into new extraordinary circumstances over and over without it becoming mundane or without the person becoming a sort of superhero.
Instead of focusing on Marge Gunderson, Hawley focused on the type of story t hat was told. The use of “This story is true” in the film and in the TV show is delightful precisely because it's so blatantly, transparently false. And the more seriously they play it, the more ridiculous it is. The opening episode of the season features an appearance by a UFO, for god's sake. Hawley's not trying fool anyone. He's not trying to convince you that all of these things actually happened. He's telling you that the way people behave in these shows, that the way people make choices, is grounded in the truth of how people really behave. He's a magpie, pulling incidents from the news, form the work of the Coens, from other true crime stories, and he's remarkably good at taking all of this as a framework, then hanging his original characters onto this framework.
Ultimately, this season is not only a terrific crime story, but it's also a study in frustrated decency. There are a few characters here who are simply good people trying to do a good job, and Patrick Wilson emerges as one of the most interesting protagonists of last year, playing the younger version of the character played by Keith Carradine in the first season. Lou Solverson has a million reasons not to play hero once things start to go south, not the least of which is the cancer his wife is struggling to beat. He can't help himself, though, because he has sworn to do a job, and watching him struggle through an admittedly insane set of circumstances to try to figure out the insanity erupting around him becomes deeply moving by a certain point.
I can't get over how good Kirsten Dunst is in the show. As Peggy Blumquist, whose impulsively awful reaction to an accident kicks off the events in the series, she is walking a tightrope between being an idiot, a dreamer, and a woman who simply wants a better life and believes in the one she sees sold to her in magazines.
The entire cast does great work. Jesse Plemons, Ted Danson, Bokeem Woodbine, and Jean Smart are all exceptional, and actors like Angus Sampson and Jeffrey Donovan shine in ways we've never seen from them before. But the real star here is the writing staff and the amazing list of directors who worked on the show. Aside from Hawley, Steve Blackman, Robert De Laurentiis, Ben Nedivi, and Matt Wolpert wrote a terrific group of characters and found a fantastic pressure cooker to trap all of the characters in together. Randall Einhorn, Michael Uppendahl, Adam Arkin, and Jeffrey Reiner helped create a beautiful, coherent world, and they steered their cast through it with grace and without any of the tensions and pressures that can often compromise television compared to features. For me, one of the added bonus pleasures of the year was seeing that Keith Gordon directed two of the episodes. Gordon may be one of our most consistently underrated filmmakers. No one who has made films as great as Mother Night, A Midnight Clear, The Chocolate War, and Waking The Dead should have been in feature director's jail since 2003. He's worked on plenty of good shows, contributing episodes to Dexter, The Killing, Masters Of Sex, The Strain, and The Leftovers (which we'll be discussing in this column next week), but thirteen years without a feature film that starts with Gordon seems like we're really missing out.
The show begins with an incident one night in a near-empty diner involving Kieran Culkin as Rye Gerhardt, a low-level member of a powerful crime family. Things end badly, and as he steps outside, two things happen within a matter of moments. First, he sees what appears to be a UFO. Second, he is hit by a car driven by Peggy, Dunst's character. She freaks out and, instead of stopping, drives home with what she thinks is a dead person sticking out of her windshield. What she does, and what her husband Ed (Plemons) does to help her, drops them right into the middle of a psychotic turf war between the Gerhardt family and a Kansas City mob that presents itself through several faces, including Mike Milligan (Woodbine, who is a nonstop delight in the role), Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), and the ominous Kitchen brothers (Todd Mann and Brad Mann).
There is so much that is so good about the ten-hour story that it's hard to even begin. Alan Sepinwall had a field day writing about the show last year, and at one point, he and Roth Cornet debated whether you can call the show's second season a “movie.” Alan convinced her that the show has to be considered as a television show, and while I would never dismiss anything Alan says about television, I would argue that the line is getting far blurrier these days. If Fargo was constructed like a regular series, where each season is a direct part of the larger story being told, I would never say that a season would qualify also as a movie. But Fargo is more akin to an anthology show, where each season can stand on its own, and this is a complete piece of work, thematically, narratively, and artistically. If Kieslowski's The Decalogue is a theatrical experience, and if critics were perfectly comfortable putting Berlin Alexanderplatz on their best of lists back in 1983 because it played theatrical dates, then I'm going to be stubborn and contrary and insist that I be allowed to call Fargo Season Two a movie.
There are some beautiful small references to the Coens sprinkled throughout the season. I love the way songs from Coen films show up, sometimes used to invert their original emotional purpose, sometimes used to directly evoke it. “Man Of Constant Sorrow” makes a terrific appearance, “Danny Boy” is used to make it clear that Hawley isn't trying to trick you when he leans into Miller's Crossing a bit, and “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” is always welcome. But for me, there is a reference to Raising Arizona near the end of the ten episodes that just destroyed me. The original scene, the final beautiful dream sequence that wraps up Arizona, is one of my favorite things that the Coens have ever done, and it breaks my heart each and every time I see it. But the way Hawley called back to it here broke my heart in a whole different way, because he took the hope and the beauty of the original dream and he underscored the fragility of it, and the looming horror that threatens all of our possible futures. Like I said, homage is easy.
But Fargo? There's nothing easy about it. And making it look effortless is just one of the many reasons I'm comfortable calling the second season of the show one of the very best movies of 2015.
Fargo Season Two is available now on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as for digital download, and you can see all of season one on Hulu Plus if you missed it.
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