The last of the ten episodes of the second season of “Fargo” aired just before Christmas, and if it was disappointing for its lack of excessive violence (with only one gruesome killing), that shortcoming was more than made up for in the preceding installments of this excellent series. The show is written by Noah Hawley, who must have a psychic connection to the Coen Brothers, for he has managed to capture, in both of the TV series’ seasons, much of the rhythm and chemistry of the great 1996 film that was written, produced, and directed by Ethan and Joel. (The Coen Brothers are credited as Executive Producers of the series, but they presumably have no creative impact.)
Both seasons of the show are highly recommended with several caveats. First of all, as noted, they are exceedingly violent, even more so, if that’s possible, than the original movie, which (dark humor aside) was pretty heavy on the body-count meter.
In season one, an amoral assassin played with insouciant panache by Billy Bob Thornton, enticed a life-long loser (played by Martin Freeman) to become a neophyte killer. Between the two of them, the number of dead bodies increased exponentially with each episode. In the just completed season, a family of heavy-duty thugs engaged in a veritable war with a big city syndicate seeking to take over the family’s territory. And between the two of them, the number of grisly and graphic killings grew to nearly one hundred (by our conservative estimate) by the show’s penultimate episode.
Suffice it to say that Mr. Hawley has easily exceeded the violence component of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” in his twenty TV episodes.
What the series may lack is a legitimate comic quality, an aspect of the film that made the violence a little easier to accept. Mr. Hawley, especially in the second season, seems less concerned with the moments of light comic touches (as in the scene of the pregnant wife and her husband loading their plates with all kinds of mess hall food at a cafeteria) that were sprinkled liberally into the movie. Little, if any, of that kind of that otherwise irrelevant real-life stuff is evident in the TV series.
But if that is a criticism, and we suppose it is, the many references to the movie in almost every episode of the TV series are more than enough to provide a few smiles, if not chuckles, for fans of the original film.
In the end, Hawley’s “Fargo” succeeds as superior television for the same reason that “Breaking Bad” and its genre progenitor, “The Sopranos,” succeeded. They all offer a glimpse of the dark side of human existence in an underworld setting that few of us will ever witness first hand. And they do so as entertainment first and foremost, with any suggestion of a “message” or “political viewpoint” at most only incidentally revealed.
In that regard, it will be interesting to see what Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad” does with the second season of that series’ prequel, “Better Call Saul.” Mr. Gilligan was a speaker at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) last month. He spoke about the creative process in television and of the elevated quality of premium cable productions that follow the lead set by “The Sopranos.”
In “Better Call Saul,” Mr. Gilligan has the opportunity to scale down the violence that was so much a part of “Breaking Bad” in favor of a true character study. And in his central character, a struggling attorney who has always been in the shadow of his far more successful older brother, Gilligan may have created a figure who is a less extreme (and perhaps more believable) version of Walter White.
It will also be interesting to see how Gilligan’s and Hawley’s careers progress. Both are obviously hot items right now, and it would be surprising if they don’t find ways to evolve into even greater success with new creations that will again impress and engage the viewing public.