Like a lot of us right now, I have had quite a lot of spare time during this pandemic. I worked for most of the start of it, but for the last month have been funemployed with plenty of video games and TV time. My latest binge actually started over half a decade ago and I only just recently got back to it, though I guess if it spans most of a decade it can’t truly be considered a “binge”.
When the first season of the Coen Bros love letter Fargo first came out, I was very into it. I mean, I love the Coens and their films, and this adaptation had Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, as well as some great character actors like Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg and Keith Carradine. Allison Tolman killed it as the Frances McDormand-inspired Molly Solverson and Colin Hanks seemed to be channeling the lovability of his dad in his performance of Gus Grimly. All together, it was set to be a solid watch.
I bought the first season on DVD, watched the first five episodes and then…stopped.
Not because it was bad, but I had that feeling of, “Oh, I don’t feel like watching that tonight, I need to be in the right mood to watch it.” And the longer that went on, the more avoidant of it I became. Just one of those dumb things that sometimes happens in my OCD-riddled brain. But, earlier this year, I noticed that Fargo was on Netflix and watched the first two episodes of it with my wife. She was into it, but then the same thing happened.
“Oh, I don’t feel like watching that tonight, I need to be in the right mood to watch it.”
Last week I decided, “Screw it, I’m just gonna watch it.” And proceeded to binge seasons one and two over the course of three or four days. And a few things became readily apparent to me as I did. What I’m about to say aren’t necessarily criticisms of the series, which always remained enjoyable to watch, just some stuff of note from the perspective of one North American Jew who studied film at uni. The following will contain very mild spoilers for a now-six year old TV show and its subsequent second season, but not the third or fourth.
One thing that’s very important to keep in mind about Fargo is that while this series is a very close approximation of the Coen Bros style and attitude, it is still a facsimile. It is a group of people imitating the very particular style of a duo of filmmakers who’ve been working on their style for decades. Joel and Ethan Coen have a very specific way of representing their worlds and the way their characters behave within them. It is something very difficult to imitate because nothing is ever really as it seems in a Coen movie. That being said, I do feel that season one – which essentially recreates an extended version of the events from the Fargo film – does a reasonable job creating a world and populating with people worthy of a Coen-world.
But not everything is exactly right. As you may or may not be aware, the Coens are Jewish filmmakers who include quite a lot of explicitly and implicitly Jewish themes and characters into their work. The first thing I noticed was that, in the series, these weren’t treated with as much deftness as they would have been in the hands of the Coens. Noah Hawley, the oft-writer, sometimes director, and adapter of he series is, notably, not Jewish. So, it might be simple to say that his understanding of the types of things that the Coens do in regards to things like this is coming from a less educated place. This isn’t to say, by the way, that the representation of Jewish characters in the series is negative. It’s more in how the characters around him respond to him.
This became quite apparent to me in regards to Gus’ neighbour, the Orthodox Jewish man named Ari Ziskind (Byron Noble). When Gus (Colin Hanks) is having trouble sleeping, he sees Ari through his kitchen window, who is also sitting at his kitchen table, awake in the dark night. The two end up having a conversation where Gus asks Ari what he should do about a dilemma he is having. Ari, in true Jewish style, presents him with a parable of a rich man who tries to fix all the world’s problems by first giving away all his money, and then by killing himself to donate all his organs. A full transcript is here.
“The point,” Ari says, “is only a fool tries to fix all the world’s problems.”
To which Gus says, “But you’ve got to try, don’t you?”
Now, both Gus and Ari are, in fact, trying to effect their own kind of change on the world. Gus is a small-town police officer and Ari is a deeply religious man who runs a Mitzvah Bus, a mitzvah being a good deed, and also operates the local neighbourhood watch. They are both attempting some kind of praxis in terms of helping to fix what they both see as a broken world. So far, no real problem.
Later on, though, Gus is talking to Molly over lunch and, just before the audience arrives into the scene, Gus has clearly told Molly about the parable. Molly is a very practical character, so her response is typical for that vein.
“Why didn’t he just go and work for a charity?” she says in reference to the rich man.
Gus laughs and then we all move on. Now, this – for me – was a problem. It completely invalidates the point of the parable, the point Ari had in bringing it up, and Molly’s answer doesn’t leave Gus thinking anything over, he just accepts her dismissiveness. I know this may seem minor, but it hits at the heart of what I mean when I talk about imitating Coen style rather than living in a Coen world. An interaction like that would leave typical Coen protagonists thinking, or at least disturbed, for a goodly bit of screen time, or would feel like the overarching theme of the piece their making. In this instance, Ari and his parable are relegated to “impractical religious idea” and dismissed. It doesn’t do justice to how Jewish people discuss and dissect and interact with this sort of story.
This sort of feeling carries through into season two, with a moment in the first episode’s first scene where a non-Jew writes a Jewish character’s dialogue, awkwardly comparing persecution cred with a Native American. Now, there’s a lot of conversations to be had within the white Jewish community about racism, but this didn’t feel like a useful moment in this show other as a cheap gag.
Now, because this piece has gone on a little longer than intended, I just wanted to make a quick note about season two as a whole. Characters in season one would often reference some kind of disaster that happened in Sioux Falls in 1979. Season two tells us the story of that disaster. And while season one felt more or less like a Coen Brothers creation, season two didn’t. It felt like a completely different show. It seemed to be attempting to make the shift the Coens made from Fargo to No Country for Old Men, but it didn’t quite hit the mark; other than in relatively exceptional episodes like Episode 8. Critics made the comments that No Country appeared to be the start of the Coens “growing up”, but even that still ignores the very Coen-like touches that are evident in that film. One thing that always permeates – in my opinion – in a Coen film is hope. Even when things are cyclical and dark and ostensibly bad, there’s a sense of reckless hope in amongst every character, and their behaviour as well as the feel of the film reflected that.
Season two of Fargo felt more like your average drama, with far fewer absurd moments and people, but simultaneously making all of its characters feel more like cartoons rather than fully realized people, with some minor exceptions. It gave us great performances from Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Ted Danson, Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart, Bokeem Woodbine, Rachel Keller and Cristin Milotti. Even the smaller roles were full to the brim by Brad Garrett, Kieran Culkin, Zach McClarnon, Nick Offerman, Emily Haine and Angus Sampson. And then there’s Jeffrey Donovan. I loved Donovan in Burn Notice. He is a talented actor and mimic, but it felt like his performance in this was allowed to cross the border into cartoony, whereas everyone around him is being overtly serious. To an extent Kirsten Dunst suffered from this a little because it felt like they didn’t explore her fully as a character until the final two or three episodes.
The themes were a little on-the-nose in this season as well – being set in 1979 allowed them to do some overt sexism and racism storylines – which didn’t feel fully explored. It felt altogether like a serious drama with a couple of occasionally goofy characters and absurd circumstances, where everyone had the hokey Minnesota accent, which isn’t really enough to make it feel right. Again, this doesn’t mean it was a bad show or that it wasn’t entertaining, but the writing did seem a bit more confused in this season, most likely because it wasn’t based on any source material in particular, though a keen eye could definitely spot a lot of references to Coen Bros work, not dissimilar in a scene in season one where Billy Bob Thornton murders a cop and it’s a very clever reference to Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) murdering a cop in No Country for Old Men.
I haven’t watched seasons three or four, although I definitely will because, again, these criticisms do come from a place of enjoyment. Though I felt overall that season two was weaker, it wasn’t Weak. It just goes to show that adapting a piece of work – especially if you’re doing it in the original work’s style – is extremely difficult and, occasionally, you will falter.