‘Fargo’ Uses Pop Songs Better Than Any Show On Television

As prestige TV continues to ape the conventions of cinema, more and more TV shows have stepped up their game when it comes to a device near and dear to my heart — using pop songs to score pivotal scenes. Many of the best and most talked-about shows on television do this very well: The Americans, Big Little Lies, Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, Legion, Halt & Catch Fire. But there’s one show that does it a little better than the rest, FX’s Fargo.

Filmmakers and showrunners utilize pop songs in all sorts of ways. The most basic purpose is to quickly establish a time period — CCR for the ’60s, Donna Summer for the ’70s, Duran Duran for the ’80s, Nirvana for the ’90s, and so on. More thoughtful artists, however, will actually integrate the music into the storytelling, as either a Greek chorus signaling important themes to the audience, or as a window into the inner lives of the characters. Or they’ll revel in the visual possibilities that arise when you take a piece of action and combine it with a particular song, which can elevate an otherwise flat sequence to the dizzying heights of a dance number.

Fargo, especially in its second season, has excelled at using songs as storytelling devices, as well as finding ways to create musical sequences that looked and sounded incredible on-screen. During the series’ forthcoming season, I’ll be writing weekly columns devoted to how Fargo uses music in each episode, exploring the ways in which songs deepen (or possibly detract from) the narrative. (I’ll also investigate the obscure tracks that will inevitably pop up on the soundtrack, for those without ready access to Shazam.) Before that, here are five great moments from the first two seasons.

Season 1, Episode 2: Eden Ahbez, “Full Moon”
Scene: Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench dispose of a body in an ice-covered lake.

Fargo didn’t really hit its stride as a show that scored scenes to pop music in distinctive ways until its second season. But this episode from early in season one exhibits Fargo‘s flair for digging up obscure songs and doing something subversive with them. Ahbez is a cult figure who achieved his greatest success in 1948 when his song “Nature Boy” was performed by Nat King Cole, who turned it into a No. 1 hit. “Nature Boy” was reflective of Ahbez’s proto-hippie lifestyle — he wore his hair long and grew a Jesus beard to go with his usual garb of sandals and white robes. (Ahbez was also living under the “L” in the Hollywood sign around the time that “Nature Boy” became a hit.) On his own, Ahbez recorded deeply strange, ethereal music featuring his starry-eyed, spoken-word vocals, as typified by the strangely hypnotic “Full Moon.”

On paper, “Paper Moon” shouldn’t go with a scene in which a guy his murdered by two hit men. But much like the Billy Batts sequence in Goodfellas, which utilizes Donovan’s similarly hippie-dippy “Atlantis” while Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci bash Frank Marino’s head in, the combination of violence and serene music works in a yin-yang sort of way, conveying the pathology of killers who commit horrible acts with cool efficiency.

Season 1, Episode 9: “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers

Scene: Super-criminal Lorne Malvo, posing as a dentist in Kansas City, hosts a party at his house.

“Green Tambourine,” a likably trashy bubblegum oldie that went to No. 1 in 1967 and was the only hit by ersatz-psych group the Lemon Pipers, would normally be an odd choice to score a party scene that takes place in 2007. But it’s perfectly suited for Fargo, which tells stories that take space during hyper-specific periods of time that also somehow seem to exist slightly out of time.