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A conversation on ‘Fargo,’ shorter TV seasons and the anthology format

FX’s Fargo began the second half of its 10-episode season last Tuesday (May 20). Four more episodes remain with the May 27 broadcast. My friend Edwin Arnaudin and I thought the series’ halfway point to look at what the show has done so far and where it might go for the remainder of this season.

Edwin is the film and culture writer for the Asheville Citizen-Times and Ashvegas (and at least one or two publications I’m forgetting right now). He’s the reason I’ve been able to see films in time to review them for Friday recently (for which I’m grateful), and we have plenty of conversations about movies.

We’ve been talking about TV quite a bit lately too, and Edwin wanted to discuss Fargo. The AP Party was more than willing to oblige.

Edwin: I’m a big Coen brothers fan, and while Fargo isn’t my favorite of their films, it’s pretty high up there. (Gun to my head, I’d rank it below A Serious ManThe Big LebowskiMiller’s Crossing, and maybe even No Country for Old Men.)

Upon hearing of the FX series of the same name, all I needed to invest in an iTunes season pass was the source inspiration and the new show’s cast. Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Goldberg and Oliver Platt have all wowed me at one time or another, and while I wasn’t aware of showrunner Noah Hawley or ersatz Marge Gunderson Allison Tolman, enough assets appeared in place to give them a try.

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Other than giving their blessing and receiving honorary Executive Producer status, the Coens are not involved and neither are the characters from their film (at least not directly). Nonetheless, the series’ darkly comic tone and range of Minnesota character types are clear descendants that do their shared title proud.

Ian, what’s your stance on the Coens’ film and what were your expectations heading into the series?

Ian: Like you, I don’t know if I’d call Fargo my favorite Coen brothers film, though it might be the one I have the most affection for, if that makes sense. That’s probably because of the characters.

I was initially ignorant about the series, figuring it was a retelling of the movie. And that just seemed like a big mistake to me. But shortly before the premiere, I learned more about the show’s intentions to be in the same world as the film (which episode 5 — “Eating the Blame” — made clear), but not a rehash of the original story. Perhaps I should’ve realized, like you, that an impressive cast wouldn’t have signed on for that kind of project.

I’m really glad I didn’t write the series off before giving it a chance, and I’ve tried to champion the show to anyone who may have had a similar misconception. I don’t know what the ratings are, but I hope that positive buzz and word-of-mouth have brought more viewers in.

So after five episodes and halfway through the season, where do you stand? Is it what you hoped for? What stands out to you most?

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Edwin: Well, a strong cast doesn’t always guarantee quality results (e.g. The Big Wedding; Movie 43), but this cast with this pedigree of material have yielded the goods for me. It wasn’t long into the first episode before the “Minnesota nice” (a phrase I don’t really like but makes perfect sense) took control and I was back in a world of born losers, soulless murderers, and frustrated cops simply trying to do the right thing.

It’s this variety of characters that I’m enjoying the most so far. Fargo moves exceedingly well between these intertwined narratives, keeping the action fresh and introducing new players with impressive precision.

The Coen’s Fargo did all of that in compact film form, but with roughly four times the space with which to work. Hawley’s take can afford to go bigger and it’s paying off. The concept of one hapless man (Freeman’s Lester Nygaard) having done something wrong and trying to outrun evil men and the law as long as possible works here, as it did with William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard. With the expanded story, I may actually be having more fun with the TV material… or it could just be the excitement that comes with a really good new toy.

Who or what is making an impression on you so far? Conversely, any problem signs that you’d like to see buffed out in the series’ second half?

Ian: I feel like I have to begin with Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson. I realize I’m getting in line with everyone else praising her work on this series, but she’s the breakout star and I’m already wondering what she’s going to be doing next. As I said to a friend, I really hope Tolman doesn’t end up starring in a sitcom. But if it’s smartly written, perhaps unconventional, and gives her a chance to show her skills, maybe that would be great. I’d just like to think that some producer or showrunner is capable of building a show around her.

I don’t know if I’d call this a problem sign or not, but there are a few characters and actors that seem like they’re getting shorted as the series progresses. With a few episodes left, perhaps this will be resolved in one form or another. But it seems like Kate Walsh’s Gina Hess, for instance, has almost been discarded. Maybe it will turn out that she’s pivotal and she wanted her husband taken out for insurance money. Right now, however, the character feels like a cliche with really nothing to do. I’m also betting that Keith Carradine was hired to do more than pour coffee and dispense occasional wisdom to Molly.

Yet I can’t say that I feel like the show is spending too much time with certain characters at the expense of others.

Billy Bob Thornton in FX's 'Fargo.'

Edwin: Before last year’s so-so Parkland, I hadn’t seen a Billy Bob Thornton movie since 2003’s Bad Santa, yet I lit up when I heard he was in a lead role on Fargo. In my opinion, Thornton’s best work is in the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, followed closely by Sam Raimi’s Coen-esque A Simple Plan, so his reentry into this darkly comic milieu, even one once-removed from the source talent, just felt right.

I love an obvious name choice when the character lives up to the billing, and as with Draco Malfoy, Thornton’s Lorne Malvo does just that. The guy has a gift for wrecking havoc and evading consequences. My favorite instances so far have been his bloody actions at the end of “A Muddy Road” (Ep. 3) and, of course, the elaborate con to wriggle out of custody in the following episode, much to the frustration of officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks, doing perhaps his best work to date).

I’m glad you brought up Walsh and Carradine, both of whom I agree will hopefully have larger roles to play. (Lou’s allusions to a messy case involving him and Grimly’s superior surely can’t be throwaways.) A little more background into Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard’s tag-team hit men would be welcome as well, though a brief cold opening along the lines of what was given to Stavros Milos (a vintage-good Oliver Platt… is there a weak link in this cast?) would be sufficient.

Any other predictions for the final five episodes? And with a slew of limited series slated for fall’s network TV schedule (featuring the likes of David Duchovny, Anna Gunn, and M. Night Shyamalan), is this format where small-screen programming is headed? (And if so, is that a good thing?)

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Ian: I predict there will be blood as this series reaches its end. It’s going to be bloody, it’s going to be nasty. And I think good ol’ Gus Grimly is going to be the one who gets the worst end of it. (Lester Nygaard is a guy upon whom life regularly shits upon, but somehow seems to just avoid the truly bad stuff.) I also feel like there’s going to be some sort of twist in terms of who’s really the instigator behind the scenes, and that may be Noah Hawley’s biggest test as a writer and showrunner. Can he bring this to a satisfying close?

I do believe that Fargo, much like True Detective before it, represents where TV is going. Shorter seasons that are basically eight- to 10-hour films, attracting top talent that may have never considered TV before with its longer-term commitments. It will be interesting to see if the four major networks get on this too.

Edwin: Gus is like an innocent in an Elmore Leonard novel: it probably won’t end well for him, but perhaps Hawley will subvert that expectation and someone even more likable (*gulp* Molly?) will fall. I’m with you that Lester is likely in the clear, either in the form of something safe, yet even more humiliating that what he’s been through since Sam Hess broke his nose or he’ll somehow end up dumbfounded atop the heap of bodies, the proverbial fool on the hill. Hell, maybe he and Malvo will drive off into the icy sunset as oddball partners.

But really, I think Malvo likewise gets away. He’s the kind of unstoppable force that gets in, gets out, and moves on to the next town. More likely it’ll be Mr. Numbers and/or Mr. Wrench who meet their demise. Maybe a minor or two as well.

As for the shift of more major stars to TV, I’m all for it. You want the best people working with the best material, and more and more we’re finding that outside of movies. McConaughey and Harrelson making their little eight-hour “movie” was a huge deal, but let’s give Top of the Lake and Mildred Pierce some credit for pushing them in that direction. Kevin Spacey, too. Outside of The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lego Movie, season two of House of Cards is probably the most fun viewing experience I’ve had this year. Good is good and I want it; I want it all, no matter where it is.

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Ian: I’m curious what you think of the anthology format that Fargo intends to utilize. Next season will move on to a different story and cast of characters. That seemed right for True Detective, as that story had a definitive ending. I think Fargo is probably going the same way here. As much as I’d like to see a new story with Molly Solverson, what are the chances that Bemidji, Minn. would have another compelling case to follow through another season?

Do you see more producers and more networks adopting the anthology format, or is it largely unsustainable for more than a couple of shows? Would it be a huge mistake for others to develop series in that style? Is this getting too far away from what TV typically is, or is that exactly why it should be done?

Edwin: The finality of the anthology format is certainly an appealing factor to me as a viewer in terms of accessibility and encouraging show creativity, plus it helps shorten the divide between TV and film. It seems like that defined end point and continual freshness would be key in attracting top talent as well and I do think we’ll see more limited series in the near future.

It’s an interesting time for TV where it seems like an increasing number of series aren’t afraid to wrap things up before the material gets stale. Breaking Bad got out while the getting was good, the next seasons of Parks & Rec (seventh) and Parenthood (sixth) will be their last, and I don’t see Girls going beyond a fifth season.

Being part of a generation that grew up expecting no less than 10 seasons of a cornerstone show (I still remember feeling like Seinfeld ended too soon after nine), I’m still adjusting to these “early” exits, but with the material feeling tighter than ever, I can dig it. (It also makes me wonder how The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men are still in business.) To that end, a change in location and characters is an asset and allows showrunners to play around with more new ideas. If that means we get only three quality seasons of Fargo or True Detective before those titles are retired, so be it.

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In terms of Fargo’s next move, you figure it needs to stay in the upper Midwest to maintain its tone and keep the title relevant, but maybe not. I don’t expect True Detective to remain in Louisiana, though it’s not as reliant upon regionalism. Regardless of Fargo’s setting, as long as the content, performances, and behind-the-scenes professionalism are high, it can only succeed.

What about you? Are viewers ready for faster turnover and greater creativity or do you think they’ll miss the experience of following characters’ developments over the course of multiple years? What’s a good balance between traditional and limited series? Should each network hold up X number of Fargos or True Detectives and stick to that plan or do we have an invasion on our hands?

Ian: I think one-season anthologies are still going to be limited to cable and midseason additions to the schedule. It’s just too limited and uncertain for networks, who want programming that can be reliable for multiple seasons. I believe viewers are much the same way. They want to stick with something, to become familiar with a set of characters and fall in love with them, to know that what they’re watching is going to build to something bigger.

The Netflix model seems to be the standard that networks are following now, but even with series like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, those first seasons didn’t tell complete stories. They were intended to set up future seasons and lure viewers into following characters like Frank Underwood and Piper Chapman.

What Netflix’s success seems to have confirmed (following HBO’s lead) is that people prefer seasons of 10-13 episodes that require a bit less of a commitment and can be binged over a shorter period of time, rather than the old standard 24- to 26-episode slogs. With so much other media to consume now — movies, TV, books, podcasts, and internet content — our time is more precious. We’ll watch your TV shows, but keep it tight and make sure it matters.

** Edwin and I actually have plenty more to say about the current state of television and whether or not TV has overtaken movies in cultural importance. But we’ll save that for another discussion to post here. You can follow Edwin on Twitter @edwinarnaudin.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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