The use of the pastiche or the remix or the mashup in contemporary “prestige television” is everywhere. I can see it working on a couple different levels. On one level, it does the same work that stock plots have always done for sitcoms. In this way, a “someone thinks their partner is cheating on them but it’s really a comical mixup” is the same kind of narrative machinery as a shot in Fargo the tv show that’s reused from No Country For Old Men. Where the narrative plot points are what provide the little trope reused from I Love Lucy to The Big Bang Theory, for Fargo (and Breaking Bad or True Detective or Hannibal) it is the kernels of shot structure, length, and content that provide the transportable thing in prestige television.
Within that paradigm, Fargo is maybe the ultimate expression of its genre of prestige television work. It contains an entire set of classed and aestheticized dependencies around the Fargo film, the Coen Brothers, FX as a channel, and the contemporary media environment in order to constantly wink at the viewer in a thousand ways. I mean, the show is absolutely made for whatever cultural bracket I am in — Malvo the villain is a composite Coen villain, the genre structure of several Coen films get called on, the comedy stylings of critical darlings Key and Peele are used, and we even get Bilbo Baggins doing a William H. Macy impression. The semiotics go deep, and it reminds me quite a bit of the use of Chambers’ and Lovecraft’s works in True Detective. In that case, the discourse around the show was less about the show and more about what it could reveal or hide about its sources at any given moment. True Detective wanted you to talk as much about The King in Yellow as it did the dynamics between the characters; I have the feeling that Fargo really wants me to see the repeated references to White Russians.
I enjoyed Fargo the most when it stuck to a close reproduction of the Coen “feel” or when it went as far out in the weeds as possible. I really felt the direction of this show more than I have felt other prestige television shows. In some episodes, there are these lovely wide shots that really hit “these humans are small in the world” feel that the Coens had in Fargo. In others, it’s like we’re watching an episode of CSI or something. Basically any moment where someone felt like they needed to add to the visual language of this universe felt unnecessary, which probably says something both about a taste culture and how the Coens can create a visually delimited imagination–seeing something in their world outside of the way they would normally frame it feels weird.
[A note: this normally doesn’t bother me, but the CGI of Fargo was actively bad. During a particular scene where fish are falling from the sky, you can see that the “layer” they are on when they are on the ground is about a full foot above the ground in several shots. For a show that seems to committed to a particular aesthetic, that work felt super slap-dash.]
The homage nature of the show to the Coen brothers and their films really points out what techniques of theirs are cinematic and don’t quite make the leap from big screen to small screen. The strange anecdotes and parables of The Big Lebowski or A Serious Man make repeated appearances in Fargo, and they don’t really deliver the same kind of impact as they do in those films. When you hear an anecdote that leads nowhere ten times in ten hours the form loses the effectiveness that it had when you heard it once in an hour and forty five.
Who would have thought that Billy Bob Thornton could be so scary?