Fargo is the Perfect Chaser to Breaking Bad

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Last night, FX’s Fargo wrapped up its 10 episode run in a wholly satisfying way. The stakes were set against the show from the very beginning, being that it is “inspired by” one of the greatest movies of all time, but somehow, someway Fargo stuck the landing. In all actuality, Fargo really shouldn’t have been this good. Not just because it was working off the unassailable legacy of the Coen Brothers’ classic, but also because it has become increasingly difficult to end cable dramas of the antihero persuasion in ways that are actually good. A prime example of this is Breaking Bad (though I’m also looking at you, True Detective). AMC’s juggernaut drama wrapped up its final run last fall, and looking back at the finale, it feels largely unnecessary. (For those keeping track: my feelings on “Felina” have gone from “perfectly fine while somewhat masturbatory” to “full on masturbatory.”) After years of being badass, Walter White never faced his true punishment and got the last say in his own endgame, riding things out in a storm of bullets. Fargo, on the other hand, managed to craft an ending that wasn’t only satisfying, but also true to its world and characters. In the shadow of Breaking Bad, Fargo shows what a morally satisfying ending should look like, and just how far the antihero genre can be taken in 10 episodes.

The differences between Breaking Bad and Fargo extend further than their Southwest vs. Midwest settings. The main difference between the two shows is how they treat their characters, most importantly the ones who make bad decisions. Obviously, both shows have very complex and differing depictions of the distinction between good and evil. In Breaking Bad, there is no black or white, just gray. In Fargo, the universe is deeply rooted in mythology, spirituality, folklore, and legends that help us learn more about good and evil. But, the most significant difference between Fargo and Breaking Bad’s moral compasses is Fargo’s fundamental understanding of one thing: bad people who make bad decisions are idiots.

From the moment Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) kills his ball-busting wife with a hammer to her head, Fargo makes it clear that this is a very, very bad decision for Lester to make. Lester was introduced as a simple and mild-mannered man (like someone else we knew), but at the moment he decides to break bad, it’s clear that he’s an idiot. Lester calls for help from the ambiguous Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton) but ends up with a bigger problem than what he started with. Instead of helping Lester with his wife’s dead body, Malvo shoots and kills the Bemidji chief of police (who has already called for backup) and flees the scene. This leaves Lester to act on his own wits—which he has none of—so logically, he decides to run headfirst into a brick wall, leaving him unconscious for when the backup unit comes.

Instances like these became frequent throughout Fargo’s 10 episode run. Instead of depicting Lester as one step ahead of everyone else, Fargo showed him only making one bad decision after the next. Each lie that Lester told only made us hate him more, and nothing was left up to ambiguity. Where Breaking Bad showed us Walter White consistently getting away scot-free in that “Yeah science! Yeah Mr. White!” kind of way, Fargo made a point of always showing us Lester at peak horribleness. What feeds into this even more is the violence at the forefront of Fargo. While the excessive amount of violence that occurred throughout the show’s run might be a misread of the Coen Brothers’ film on creator Noah Hawley’s part, the violence at least served some purpose in showing us the countless innocent casualties of one man’s idiocy.

Fargo also helped make the case against Lester by making him one of the only living assholes in a world full of saints. What made Fargo bearable was how Hawley took the term “Minnesota Nice” to heart and filled his world with an overwhelmingly amount of goodness. There was Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), the Bemidji cop who was determined to serve justice, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a good cop, even better father to his daughter Greta, and soon to be Molly’s husband, and Molly’s father Lou, a preserver of good throughout the ages. These characters put the good in good guys, and helped keep hope and justice alive in wasteland of Minnesota winters.

So, when Fargo came to close, justice was indeed served. While Lester didn’t suffer legal punishment or anything of the sort, he did suffer a horrible death only fit for the idiotic monster he had become. The show even hinted at Lester riding his fugitive status out, à la Walter White, but in the end consequences awaited him, and he drowned in a frozen lake. And even better, the good guys won! From what I’ve read, there seems to be a general dissatisfaction with Fargo’s finale. While recognizing that “Morton’s Fork” was at least satisfying, many have noted that it lacked payoff for Molly’s arc in the story. While I at least somewhat understand that dissatisfaction, I think it’s necessary to realize that Fargo was not Molly’s story. People seem to be confusing FX’s Fargo with the Coens’ Fargo, which truly is Marge Gunderson’s story. Since it was a 10 episode miniseries, I don’t think Fargo could just be one character’s story, because it instead built a rich tapestry of distinctive characters and unforgettable mysteries that created the general idea of Fargo.

I don’t want anyone who reads this to think that I am not a fan of Breaking Bad. Even though it suffered from having its weakest episode ever be its last, the whole of Breaking Bad is remarkable television that will undoubtably rank among my favorite shows of all time, (I’ve written nearly 7,000 words about it, for god’s sake!) I do, however, want anyone who reads this to think about what Fargo says about the antihero genre, and the radical changes it made to the genre in 10 episodes. The show was about good guys who prevailed until the very end and bad guys who made idiotic decisions, and it remained utterly compelling throughout. Fargo did the impossible: separated itself and became its own distinct entity from the Coen Brothers’ film, stuck the landing, and, most remarkably, found a new place to take television’s most tired genre.

The Age of Louie

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It takes a lot to start a new wave of television. You have to be expressive, influential, and most importantly, hold meaning and relevance for those watching. Our most recent wave of great TV has been the “golden age” of cable dramas with antiheroes at their forefront. However, the age of the antihero is over. Or at least is getting there. Instead of clinging to the past, it’s time for TV to move forward. And it already has.

FX’s Louie has sparked the next wave of great television. This might sound like a surprise because based on its description alone (Louis C.K. plays a fictional version of himself in this series that follows the comedian through the lows of being an awkward single dad in New York.), Louie sounds like a “normal” show. And it is! Louis C.K. is an ordinary everyman telling everyday stories in ways that are unusual for television. Because, at its core, Louie isn’t about plot, characters, or even being funny, but is instead about the nature of being human.

Humanity is an incredibly hard thing to explore in any medium, but Louie does it with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Through its transformative ways of storytelling, Louie strips down everything we know about regular storytelling, and offers a revealing look at what it’s like to be human. In Louie you can find the raw truths about life, the bizarre experiences of being human, our fears of rejection, humiliation, and loneliness, what personal victories, fulfillment, and self-discovery feel like, and what human connection really is. All of this in one 21 minute episode of television.

That’s the thing about Louie. One five-minute segment can be the most loving and profound scene you’ve seen all year, and the next as strange as a David Lynch filmLouie has been transcending normal storytelling for years in a very low-key way. The show takes its time to explore the small ideas that really matter, and the end result is unbelievably meaningful television. This is our new wave of great television: Low Key-TV.

The most obvious example of Louie’s influence on TV is HBO’s new era of dramedies. Picking up Girls and having Lena Dunham in a creatively auteur-ish position (she writes most episodes but has a writing staff, also directs occasionally) was an obvious response to Louis C.K.’s creative control over Louie (he writes and directs every episode, has edited most, and sits in with the musicians). Each episode of Enlightened, HBO’s best (albeit cancelled) dramedy was written by creator Mike White. And HBO’s new dramedies, the so-so Getting On and the wonderful Looking, are creator driven shows that have distinct visions. More importantly, each of these shows embody Louie’s low-key type of storytelling. They all tell small stories that end up having big impact emotionally, and are all incredibly resonant.

But low-key TV isn’t just half hour shows. Orange is the New Black takes a step back in every episode to examine how humanity binds each character together in their community. Sundance’s first original series Rectify is a thoughtful examination of how we view our lives and why they matter to us. And Showtime’s Masters of Sex is, ironically, the most intimate show on TV outside of Louie, telling very small stories.

However, the argument can be made that low-key storytelling has been present in television for years. Mad Men has always been a short story show disguised as an anti-hero one. Showtime’s network defining dramedies have always been blurring the lines of genre and storytelling. Even Freaks and Geeks employed a certain type of storytelling that was small, yet emotionally rich.

Still, this type of storytelling has been crystalized by Louie. It’s the main reason Louie’s the most ambitious and distinctive show on TV. You won’t find any other show on television that devotes 21 minutes to a conversation between two friends, with one who says he’s going to kill himself. There will never be a show that has its protagonist unknowingly bring a duckling into Afghanistan. Or any other episode that details a man’s escape from depression which ends with him connecting with a random family in China.

Thanks to Louie’s sheer ambition and expressiveness we have our next great wave of television. And hopefully we’ll be able to feel thankful for years to come.

American Television’s Horror Story: On the Wildly Stupid (and Wildly Insensitive) Coven

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This is what it felt like to watch American Horror Story: Coven.

On all counts, American Horror Story: Coven was a failure. I should rephrase that. Calling something a failure suggests that it made an attempt at doing something, or simply tried, but it turns out Coven did no such thing. The third season of FX’s “anthology” series had a hard time barely existing on a week to week basis, and floundered about at every chance it got. So, on all counts, American Horror Story: Coven was some of the worst television to ever be put on the air, and was a fucking abomination, to say the least.

The only thing that kept me watching Coven week after week was the prospect that it could surpass American Horror Story‘s first season’s awful, horrendous, and often times excruciating terribleness. Spoiler alert: it did. This was a surprise to me because I really hated the series’ first iteration, Murder House, which was just about as dumb as its title suggests.

It might seem like I’m some sort of AHS: Hater who has way too much free time on his hands and uses it to write obsessive amateur blog posts about how much he hates the show, but I do have some affinity for Asylum, the series’ second iteration. Asylum was smart and knew exactly what it was doing. It didn’t matter that there were Aliens, Nazis, Werewolves, Nymphomaniacs, and a murderous Santa Claus all in one place, because it was simply set in an asylum, where the rules of storytelling could be stretched by any means necessary.

This gets me to why Coven worked so poorly. On a storytelling basis, Coven was absolutely horrible. In what seemed like every episode, one character would be killed, another turned into a ghost, and another brought back from the dead. Coven‘s muddled and convoluted mess of a plot never really advanced, and NOTHING. EVER. HAPPENED. The only thing that kept Coven (barely) afloat was the bizarre possibility that Stevie Nicks, a witch herself, would appear on the show and sing a song, and when it actually happened it was so inexplicable that it had no impact on anything that had to do with the show.

This is all to say that Coven was a disaster. The structural rules of the show’s universe were constantly being broken and consequently rewritten. Nothing was ever coherent, and everything that defined Coven became completely and utterly pointless. The titular Coven was supposed to be an organization that enforced rules and brought order, but everything the show presented contradicted that fact. Why would an institution break the rules week after week without any consequences? And why were there no consequences anywhere in Coven?

This lack of consequences became especially disheartening as Coven explored race and its significance within the show’s universe. From the start, one could say that Coven functioned as an examination of power, and how factors like gender, race, age, mental illness, and class affect that power. As Coven‘s plot became more incomprehensible and eventually utterly unimportant, somehow the show’s primary focus became race relations in contemporary America. This shift in focus resulted in some predictably bad television, as Ryan Murphy (a genius, according to Derbil McDillet Dylan McDermott) and Brad Falchuk, the show’s creators, “explored” the issue of race in the most ham-fisted way you cold imagine.

The following is a list of actual things that happened during the run of Coven.

  1. A Black man was tortured and consequently reconstructed as a Minotaur. On top of being reduced to a monster, the man’s status as an animal was fetishized and glamorized by the show.
  2. Said Minotaur became sexually involved with the only Black teenage girl featured on Coven.
  3. The primary conflict of Coven became between the Voodoo community and the witches of the Coven, and this conflict stemmed from each community’s race. Essentially, the primary conflict of Coven became a Black vs. White race war.
  4. A historically racist white woman (the real-life Madame LaLaurie) was reduced to a head, and during her time as a head learned to stop being racist merely because she watched the 1977 miniseries Roots.
  5. Almost every single member of the Voodoo community was massacred in a highly stylized action scene set to none other than the civil rights anthem “Oh Freedom.”

That last item on the list is particularly problematic. While it might serve as a relatively smart story beat (uniting the two groups and ending the race war was necessary and provided one of the few sources of momentum in Coven‘s story arc), the actual sequence of Black Americans being slaughtered set to a historically significant anthem was executed in the worst way possible, and is one of the stupidest things American Horror Story has ever come up with. The only thing that can be said for the sequence is that it is offensive, disgusting, and shameful.

But this should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever watched American Horror Story. In every moment, the show sets out to shock and horrify its viewers. There’s really no thinking behind the notion, other than the fact that it will get people talking. To constantly do this, American Horror Story exists in a hyper-reality where there are no rules, nor consequences. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk think they have the liberty to treat real-world issues, like race, lightly, and play around with them with no consequences whatsoever. This became entirely and painstakingly clear throughout the run of Coven, and it could be just as easy to get fervently upset about the show’s understanding (or lack thereof) of feminism or mental illness, for example. To truly enjoy American Horror Story (or any form or art, really) one must suspend disbelief. But to truly enjoy Coveit became clear that one must suspend their very own notions of cultural awareness and basic human decency.

I love television because of its profound ability to make one feel something over the course of many weeks. But when watching American Horror Story: Coven I only felt ashamed. Ashamed of those who were involved in making it, ashamed of the channel that aired it, and ashamed of myself for watching it. I don’t think television gets much worse than this.

The Potential of The Bridge’s Odd First Season

Diane Kruger and Demian Bichir

First seasons of great television dramas aren’t usually bad. It’s actually quite uncommon. For example, take some of 2013’s best new dramas. The AmericansRectifyHannibal, and Orange is the New Black (if you want to call it a “drama”) all had really great first seasons, and represent most of 2013’s best television.

But a poor first season, isn’t exactly unheard of. Breaking Bad‘s first season had weird quirks and rhythms that were difficult to get in to. The vision and greatness of what the show has come to be wasn’t fully realized, but the season had intermittent moments of brilliance. Another show whose first season was particularly odd is The Wire. It might not seem like it upon rewatch, but the beginning of the first season of The Wire is incredibly confusing. The characters all talk in a weird jargon, and  nothing seems to really make sense until a moment in the fourth episode, where it is decided if The Wire  is for you or not.

Both of these two dramas represent the medium’s best, The Wire being the best ever, and Breaking Bad being a strong contender for that title. And what’s interesting is their first seasons. Neither are “bad,” but seemed off at the time. FX’s The Bridge is four episodes into its first season, and is having an especially off start to the series. All of the pieces seem to be in place (such as both lead performances, a strong array of supporting characters, and strong names attached to the writing) for the series to be excellent, but four episodes in, it’s just not there yet.

Just because it isn’t there yet, doesn’t mean I’m going to quit watching, because the show exudes lots of potential. First, and foremost it should be noted that the series is adapted from a Danish television series, Broen, which are always great. Adapting it and running the show is Meredith Stiehm, an MVP from Homeland‘s writers room (most notably known for writing the series’ best episode, “The Weekend”). The show’s setting, on the US/Mexico border is quite fantastic, as there are multiple opportunities for great Hispanic characters, something television has always lacked. And in fact, there already is two great hispanic characters played brilliantly by Demian Bichir and Emily Rios. There are also other great performances from Diane Kruger, Ted Levine and Thomas M. Wright (Johnno from Top of the Lake!!!).

It’s interesting how The Bridge matches up to Breaking Bad and The Wire. All of their first seasons (as of August 2nd, 2013) are odd, off-balanced, and sometimes muddled. What’s different is that neither Breaking Bad nor The Wire showed as much potential as The Bridge when they first aired. Sure, The Corner and Homicide were great, but nobody really knew David Simon or Ed Burns by name. Vince Gilligan had written and directed some pretty cool episodes of The X-Files, but no one could have expected Breaking Bad.

The Bridge is extremely lucky that is shows the type of potential it does now. The television landscape today is chock-full of great new series appearing out of every corner, and there is just too much good television to keep track of.  The Bridge is lucky, of course because it is airing in the summer, where great television is disparate. Who’s to say that we wouldn’t have overlooked Breaking Bad or The Wire, if they aired in today’s television landscape?

Because The Bridge shows so much potential, I’m going to stick with it for now. It has shown that it can be funny, touching, quirky, thrilling and incredibly mysterious which combine to make a fairly idiosyncratic television show. Even if the show declines in quality, it’ll always have its wacky theme song. I’m thankful that The Bridge airs in the summer, because who knows, it could turn out to be television’s next great drama.