‘Fargo’ vs. ‘Hannibal’: Which drama’s greatness is more improbable?

Senior Television Writer
06.12.14 49 Comments

Over the weekend, I was in Austin for the third annual ATX Television Festival, featuring lots of panels, parties and other opportunities for passionate TV fans to rub elbows with both one another and, at times, the people responsible for their favorite shows. As happens at an event like this, there was a lot of talk about TV both during the panels and between them, and one of the recurring questions (even before the screening of this week’s episode) was this: How in the world does “Fargo” not only exist, but exist at the level of quality it’s at?

And that, in turn, led me to a related question: Which show’s greatness is more improbable: “Fargo” or “Hannibal”?

Now, I’m not wondering which show is better, but how steeply the odds were stacked against each to function as even good television, let alone as two of the best shows of what is turning out to be another incredibly deep year for quality television. It makes precious little sense that either of these properties has been turned into a great TV show, let alone that both have, because the qualities of their predecessors would seem to defy this kind of adaptation. Yet here we are, somehow, twice in the same spring.

The question came up again the other night on Twitter (this time, I was the one asking it, with other critics responding), and I thought it was time to look at the issue in greater depth. I think I know what the answer is, but I’ll lay out the case for each, going back and forth, and then let you guys decide.

For “Fargo”: Hannibal Lecter has been the subject of many successful adaptations by multiple storytellers (even Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” is decent, if not at the level of “Silence” or “Manhunter”), whereas the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” is a wholly unique creation, and their voice in that film and others has never been successfully imitated (though many have tried before, including an unsold “Fargo” pilot – with Edie Falco as Marge – in the late ’90s).

For “Hannibal”: The number of previous Lecter adaptations works against it, as do all of the serial killer imitators we’ve seen on the big and small screens since “Silence of the Lambs” hit theaters. The genre in general, and this character in particular, were completely and utterly played out.

For “Fargo”: The fact that Thomas Harris’ books led to an entire cinematic genre suggests it’s a durable, elastic idea. “Fargo” is a crime story, itself a durable genre, but the nature and tone of that story in the film, and now the show, is so specific and so delicate that even now you will find people arguing about the film’s meaning. (Were the Coens celebrating the people of Minnesota, or mocking them?) Three years ago, before either show went into development, I could have more easily imagined someone making at least a competent “Hannibal” than a competent “Fargo.”

For “Hannibal”: “Fargo” has Billy Bob Thornton, who’s both a familiar face and a man who’s worked with the Coens before (and in snowy terrain, in “A Simple Plan”), plus the known and liked Martin Freeman as its other male lead. “Hannibal” is working with a relatively obscure foreign actor in Mads Mikkelsen who speaks in a thick accent and another in Hugh Dancy who at least is good at pretending to be American (and to have Asperger’s or something like it).

Also for “Hannibal”: Though some of the “Fargo” TV characters are loosely modeled on ones from the movies (Molly as the Marge stand-in, Lester as Jerry Lundegaard), they are for the most part Noah Hawley’s own creations, and he can do whatever he wants with them. “Hannibal” has to take an incredibly famous character in Hannibal Lecter, a slightly less famous but in some ways even more imitated character in Will Graham, and find a new take on them, while still staying roughly inside the framework that will take these reimagined characters to the events of “Red Dragon,” et al.

For “Fargo”: Fuller has a road map to play with, even if he can take as many detours as he would like. Hawley had to invent this story out of whole cloth, and find a way to expand the basic idea (small-town Minnesota cop does surprisingly well investigating a brutal crime spree) over 10 weeks, pausing to allow characters to discuss parables, logic puzzles, the Lost Boys of Sudan, and whatever else is on Hawley’s mind.

For “Hannibal”: The detours Fuller takes are incredibly strange and imaginative – not just the weird methods of the killers Will hunts in the midst of his larger game against Hannibal (corpses turned into beehives, trees, mushrooms, etc.), but the esoteric philosophical discussions that Hannibal has with Will, Jack Crawford and anyone else he meets. It is a bizarre damn show.

Also for “Hannibal”: It is a bizarre, disturbing, incredibly violent damn show, and yet one that airs on a traditional broadcast network in NBC. You expect FX to take risks like “Fargo,” but you don’t expect to turn on NBC and see a collage of dead bodies made to resemble a giant human eye.

I could keep going, and I imagine the quantity of arguments for “Hannibal” would be higher, and yet I keep thinking that the answer is “Fargo,” because that first reason is ultimately the one that matters most. Enough people have told good to great stories with Hannibal Lecter or characters like him to know that it’s possible, even if the approach Fuller is taking is more idiosyncratic than most. But the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” is such a specific work that Hawley’s ability to create something that is both like it(*) and yet its own thing seems to me the more unlikely achievement.

(*) At the “Fargo” Q&A I conducted in Austin, I asked Hawley how he avoided the show coming across “like a bad Coen brothers cover band,” which inspired Allison Tolman to later suggest they call such a band “The Faux-en brothers.”

What does everybody else think? I’ve embedded a poll below, but I’m also curious to read arguments for either side. Both shows are wonderful, but which show’s wonderful-ness surprises you more?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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