Friends, all I do is sit around and complain. It’s become my “thing.” We all need a thing: Some folks go around donating blood and pulling old ladies and puppies from burning buildings. I have chosen to complain, and I’m good at it, although as I also never leave the house I’m running low on things to complain about. I have to get creative.
So, having little else to do with my time, I checked out episodes 1-3 of FX’s new series Fargo, based on Fargo, the Coen Brothers film. Now, I have no problem with repurposing the universe, setting, and generally sensibility of that film into a TV series — I think we’re all beyond such weak tea considerations, aren’t we? I mean, who gives a shit where the inspiration for something came from? Keep re-telling those stories, whether it’s Batman or Fargo. As long as the retellings are interesting, I don’t care.
What I do care about is that the retellings are interesting and well done. On the one hand, Fargo tics all those “golden age of TV” boxes: Good production values, top talent in all the major roles in front of or behind the camera, and a slow, thoughtful approach to the story that allows it to unfold slowly in what will hopefully be a twisty little plot filled with surprises and horrifying commentary on human nature.
One thing Fargo the TV series does not have, as far as I can tell, is any concept of depth of character.
FLATWORLD: THE SERIES
The characters on Fargo are, in the first three episodes, more or less just cardboard cut outs of people. They all have one note to play and they play it as hard as they can. Not a single one has an inner fire burning behind their eyes that might make you wonder what they do when they wander off screen — because we know, instinctively, that they simply vanish when they walk off screen, because they only exist to move the plot along.
For example, Lester Nygaard’s wife, murdered by her husband in a truly surprising moment (both due to its almost casual brutality and the timing of it considering what I’ve been trained to expect from noir plots). She’s a shrill, one-note caricature of Familiar Bitchy Wife. She belittles Lester constantly during the brief flame of her existence on our screens, displays zero redeeming features, and essentially exists to be murdered by her husband without completely alienating the audience from the show’s protagonist.
Lester himself is the almost comically nebbishy man you really only meet in half-baked scripts. A man this timid and socially awkward wouldn’t survive his teen years, much less get married and hold down a job – much less leave the fucking house. He exists only to justify the increasingly poor decisions he will make, decisions that any normal person would not make because they had some semblance of an inner life. In other words, when his wife is humiliating him the audience catches itself sort of nodding along in agreement because he is, basically, empty space walking around, and if I woke up married to this man I’d be (in addition to totally confused) pissed off at him almost instantly.
FUN? YOU BETCHA
Now, this doesn’t mean that Fargo is a waste of viewing time. Billy Bob Thornton is a lot of fun as a walking personification of evil, even if his character is basically as flat as everyone else — he exists to commit violence and destroy all around him, and likely turns into a bat and roosts in magic castles when not on screen for all the real-world weight his character has. But he’s Billy Bob, and that voice and that face that seems always poised to break into a demented, delighted evil grin is a lot of fun to watch. The story had a few surprises so far, and I suspect the story is what will make or break the series: Pack in enough wow factor and who’ll care that the characters could be slid under your door and then used as placemats?
And someone should tell Noah Hawley that giving people ridiculous haircuts and oddball tics isn’t the same thing as creating an actual character. Just don’t use my name. I don’t want anyone writing one of these essays about my work.