Tuesday, December 15, 2015

TV Watch: Fargo Season 2

I was on blogging hiatus during the first season of Fargo.  In the year since returning I haven't talked about the program a great deal, but if you're a regular reader (Hi, Dad!), you may have seen me make mention of the show and the Season 1 star, Allison Tolman.  Hollywood, find this person work.  She's great.

When the show came back on again this Fall, I didn't care to write about this season of Fargo on an episode-by-episode basis.  When writing about television with its weekly installments, with its endless trails of breadcrumbs leading you in to the next episode and into the next season, you wind up tallying plot points, punching holes, checking boxes and idly speculating.  I do it here all the time when I talk TV.  

But with programs like FX's Fargo in this new era of American television, we're getting a new form of the medium, something akin to the novel for motion pictures.  Obviously, TV has grown and changed.  In many corners its unrecognizable from the industry and story-telling I grew up with, and while I find the idea of "binging" a show kind of weird and self-defeating, I can understand the desire to move from chapter to chapter and stay up late to finish a good book.

Fargo the TV series was never going to be the film of the same name, and seemed a hugely risky endeavor, a tight-rope act of television.  It was to be produced by the Coens, but that's code for: they'd get a check, but have no real participation.  Instead, it was the creative vision of Noah Hawley, a guy who worked on Bones and some other shows, but who didn't seem to have made a name for himself, exactly.  Few modern filmmakers are as highly regarded as the Coen Bros., and few have been as routinely successful in plunging into new territory, film after film.  And while you can enjoy a Coen Bros. film upon a first viewing, they bear repeat viewings and never disappoint.  And the Coen Bros. are prolific. 

The movie of Fargo arrived in 1996 to well-deserved critical acclaim and solid box office.  A noir-ish tale of avarice, crime, and human monsters with the soft glint of decency still living on the edges, painting the warm bed and the mundanities of life as a refuge - a good thing - in a world that has darkness always lapping at the edges.  The film struck a chord with a wider audience than the Coen Bros. had previously enjoyed, even when the studios tried to push them front and center with Hudsucker Proxy.  Sure, a lot of folks went to see the cop movie with the funny accents, but they wound up seeing a pretty good picture, too.

So what could we expect out of a TV show with a seeming lack of participation from the Coens?

In 2014, Season 1 arrived, I watched the pilot, and I got it.  A lot of you did, too.

The show took place in a period of time beginning just after the events of the film, a brief but crucial event from the movie triggering the events of Season 1 - but with no connection to the characters of the film.

It didn't escape me that many of the characters were echoes of the characters from the film, but they were never the same character.   Writer/ Executive Producer Noah Hawley had carefully dissected the 1996 film, and never stealing, simply echoing that world and that movie, he told his own story.  In some ways it felt like the Coen Bros., and in many ways - especially as the first season went on, it was very clear it was its own beast.

But we're here to talk Season 2, which just concluded with its 10th episode on Monday night. 

I had to be told by my co-worker that the 6 year old Molly was, of course, the Molly of Season 1 - and that did quite a bit to unlock the show.  After all, this was all taking place in 1979, and Molly Solverson of Season 1 was the stand in for our Marge Gunderson, and Lou of Season 1 - the guy running the cafe - was now the same Lou we saw as a young father (and maybe the same Lou who Marge can't agree with his police work in the film?).  Breaking your heart from the start, Molly's absent mother of Season 1 is seen fighting cancer as we begin Season 2.  Connections between past and present (and past and future of coming seasons, yet un-produced) are strewn about.

Like Season 1, Season 2 echoes the same themes of criminality, of the wolf outside the door of quiet domesticity.  But in both seasons, the show explored archetypes, something I'm sure you could map and grid from not just Fargo, but the many films of the Coens.  It escaped no one's notice that the music in the first episodes was comprised of 70's-tastic renditions of the blue-grass old-timey music of the award winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, even as the brothers of the Gerhardt crime family sought their lost sibling.  Or the UFO from the conclusion of The Man Who Wasn't There (a film I've only seen once and can never find these days) makes an appearance.  References abound, from Miller's Crossing to Raising Arizona to The Big Lebowski's own archetypes finding a home at the V.F.A.  Certainly more were present from others of the Coen Bros.' body of work - but the show stands on its own.  The archetypes create a pattern and texture and certainly inform, but aren't a requirement for viewing.

The cast and crew assembled are as excellent as any working on television.  Perhaps its a bonus for getting actors that they know the show is an anthology, that they won't be back next season.  10 episodes in and out, treat it like a film.  Because certainly the production design, the camera work, the editing and - above all - the directing (each episode this season, in particular, had a unique feel) is far and away some of the best on television.  It never looks like television.

Yes, the scripts are great, but so is the talent that doesn't butcher what's on the page.  Name talent like Ted Danson, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Nick Offerman, and Jean Smart doing everyone a favor with what she brought to the screen as Floyd Gerhardt.  Simply phenomenal.  But you have IMDB.  You can read.

Fargo is a world of repeating sins.  From the death in the snow that begins the police investigation to the mistakes of the everyman in over their head once they step over the threshold into darkness to the return to home and hearth.

William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard and his weedling and scheming of the film had been echoed in Season 1 through Martin Freeman's Lester Nygard, but in Season 2 - we get thrown by the twitchy typewriter salesman.  In the end, though, were the flights and delusions of what we're missing, our deceit - it seemed strange to say - no, it was Peggy Blumquist who followed Jerry's path.*

And other bits echo.  Heck, for folks paying attention at home: Bruce Campbell starred in and produced The Evil Dead, which was edited by one of the Coens.  In turn, Bruce appears on screen for a couple of seconds in the 1996 film of Fargo in a TV show the criminals are watching and he reappears here in a shockingly solid portrayal of Ronald Reagan.

How to decode this?  What map is Hawley trying to draw?

The show's embrace of what I'll simply refer to as domesticity is over-riding.  It sees the flaws of mankind sourced in our failure to appreciate and embrace what we have in one another.  Even the deadly Gerhardts, seemingly invulnerable together, are simply swept away once the schisms form.  Looking beyond that can throw people out of their depth or destroy what's around them.  In the final episode, when a high schooler quotes Camus to Betsy, who is all but waiting to die from the cancer inside her, Molly pulled up tight beside her, she dismisses a high schooler's awed regurgitation of the meaninglessness of existence and with the certainty of the mission each person is set upon, her fight not gone despite her knowledge the end is coming.

It's Peggy's flightiness, her dreams of a better world for herself through workshops and "self-actualization" at costs she and Ed can't afford, grasping at illusions that will always be out of reach that would have driven Ed and Peggy apart eventually (with or without Constance's meddling - played by Elizabeth Marvel who was in the Coens' re-make of True Grit, natch).  Her husband dead by an hour, already she's dreaming of a prison sentence like it's a vacation stay, something she can improve on.

You have what you need in the people who love you is a message that television doesn't like to sell, not in an America where we're supposed to chase our dreams, and if we spend money just the right way, we'll all be self-actualized.  Except, we know, that doesn't come.  But we do it anyway.

Purity of mission extends to the good people in uniforms and who wear badges must remain pure in motive - and damn, if the show, in maybe the otherwise weakest of episodes, has one of the bravest scenes I've ever seen on film.  Lou staring down the entire Gerhardt clan and walking away alive, not a bullet fired (when there's no question that his murder, right in front of local cops, would simply be swept under the rug).  The show and movie become about keeping that evil outside and at bay, without compromise or ego.  It's a rare thing to see, and this Season made no bones about empty messages of hope with nothing behind them.

Not all evil is punished with a bullet.  Bokeem Woodbine turned in a star-turn performance as Mike Milligan, a bit of an eccentric, maybe - and a mob enforcer out of Kansas City with clear eyes and a mind so much sharper than everyone around him, they mistake him for loopy.  Not enough can be said about the path this character takes, but I won't spoil it even in this spoiler-laden discussion.  But Hawley and Woodbine's creation is every bit as memorable, if not more so, than Thornton's character from last season.

In my twenties I was the only person I knew my age who knew who to navigate a hospital, talk to doctors, when to advocate for the person you were with in the ER or checked in upstairs.  In a lot of ways, I was the only person I knew who wasn't sure what the next phone call was going to bring.  But we've always been lucky.  I've not actually seen anything in TV or movies that understood what it was to have to go to work and sometimes lose track of the more important things at home when you get buried as you pull in two directions.  Or the guilt when you find out when you made the wrong call.  These days, of course, time has marched on.  We've been lucky, and as time has marched on, I am certainly not the only one I know who has had to obtain those skills or had that experience.  But even now, Lou and Betsy's story made the show genuinely a bit hard for me to watch from time to time.

It's no easy show to unravel.  It's a slow boil noir thriller, and you can speculate on what will happen next, but what's the point in that?  Like a novel, it tells a story, and you read it through to the end and then reflect.  Some are simple adventure stories, or light comedies, or maybe there's more there to be dug away at, to be examined.

Like the film of Fargo and the Season 1 finale, we have time for an epilogue, what happens afterward every bit as important as what came before.  Fates are dealt, dies are cast, we get one last look at our characters (and it's fitting that we get a Raising Arizona callback before we ever see this episode's title, one that got me choked up in an odd way, but I've now spent 20 hours with the Solversons).

I certainly haven't got it all sorted, but the show - which would be strong enough on its own merits - is the sort of thing that's so rare in television - to reward not just showing up, but to have more complicated ties making it greater than the parts.  It's a rewarding show to watch, something to keep up with, and not in the manner, as I've complained about a bit of late, of idle speculation.

The show has been renewed for a 3rd season, and I'm not sure what that will bring.  I do know after two seasons, they've built a unique approach to television, one that uses the best parts of the last two decades of change in television.  Hats off to FX for having the vision to see it through.  And, of course, thanks to the cast and crew.  It's been a fantastic season.

*Which, frankly, I wondered how shocking the audience would find the condemnation of Peggy's efforts to be Her Best Self.  In media and in life, self-improvement hoodoo remains a viciously defended part of modern culture - even if the failure of such efforts is less obvious than a real-estate deal.  I'm reminded of the end of Mad Men, about which I still harbor mixed feelings, where being in California sunshine and proximity to LA was seen as the balm to all spiritual wounds - and this was not treated with an ounce of the show's legendary cynicism.

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