Wednesday, May 29, 2024

What Happened to Fargo?

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Each of the first 2 seasons of Fargo not only justified the existence of a show based on the classic Coen crime film, they arguably surpassed the film itself. They are two fantastic seasons of television that easily stand tall among the best seasons of any drama in the years since. Creator Noah Hawley exploded onto the entertainment world afterwards, creating the weird but entertaining Legion and landing a directing gig for an upcoming Star Trek film. While I had major problems with season 3 of Fargo, it was still a solid season worth a watch.

Three years have passed, and season 4 debuted with a pair of episodes on Hulu and FX. Despite being let down by the third season, I was excited. I mainly attributed season 3’s flaws to Hawley’s overwhelming workload. Besides, why come back to Fargo after three years if he did not have a great idea for the show? Oh, and look at that cast!

Imagine my surprise when I could not even finish the second episode on first watch because of how completely uninterested I was. What in the world happened to Fargo?

To say season 4 debuted messily, well, is an understatement. Frankly, it was shocking. It was boring. It was uninspired. No one had the chaotic energy that so well defines Fargo. I often felt like I was watching at least three different shows that were barely connected. Season 4 starts off with great deal happening. 2 crime families make a truce to avoid war, one that requires an opening history lesson to explain. Between these two families, we follow about 3 different main characters and another few supporting players.

Unfortunately, this expansive cast leaves little room to actually care about any of them. No one gets a chance to shine. With scenes spread so preciously across so many different characters, no one gets to make an impact like Lester and Lorne Malvo did in season 1. There is no gradual, compelling introduction to all the major players like you get with the Gerhardts, Mike Milligan, and Lou Solverson in season 2. One character introduces all the players through the history lesson, then we are thrown into the conflict with no real fanfare or intrigue.

Fargo maybe could have fixed this sloppy introduction if the characters were then given room to shine, but instead, these episodes seemingly could not make up their mind between driving the plot and the usual character weirdness Fargo is known for. Rather than blend them the way the first three seasons so expertly managed, every scene doubled down on either one approach or the other.

This made for a jarring tonal inconsistency that only hurt the large cast of characters even more. The worst was when a scene that is obviously meant to be informative felt the need to randomly inject “classic” Fargo goofiness. Only these scenes fell flat because they did not feel natural. They felt formulaic and out of place.

The formulaic feeling applied to basically every scene, and even entire characters. Jessie Buckley’s character, Oraetta Mayflower, felt like she only existed so someone would have the stereotypical Minnesotan/North Dakotan accent Fargo is known for. Characters act a certain way because that is just what you expect from this show after 3 seasons. None of it feels like it belongs, it feels like they must act this way every so often.

Every episode so far feels like they are only running through the motions of what they think people want from Fargo. There is no inspiration in anything.

The first episode has an important near-death that, at first, feels like a classic Fargo wacky scene. A mob boss is in his car waiting for a traffic cop to let his vehicle proceed, arguing with this son the whole time. Two men that might be rival gangsters are nearby. The tension builds and builds as you wonder if a shooting is about to go down, only for the “rival gangsters” to walk by and mind their own business. Only, in the backseat, the mob boss is seemingly having a heart attack.

This would be classic Fargo. Everyone is so focused on a potential suburban shootout and the mob boss just dies of an unrelated heart attack that throws the newfound peace into jeopardy. Then the mob boss farts, and it turns out that was his problem, not any heart attack. Okay, that’s stupid but whatever. Then two boys playing with BB guns put a BB into the mob boss’s neck.

It is clearly a scene where Fargo wanted to pull a classic goofy death scene and tried way, way too hard. The whole thing felt stupid, not funny.

Now, you would hope that the scenes where season 4 was not trying so hard would be better. Just good old-fashioned, well-executed storytelling, right? We have our conflict, let’s tell that story. Fargo has always been good at that aspect of storytelling, not just the goofy accents and memorably strange deaths.

Imagine my surprise when all these scenes are just plain boring.

I can sum up any scene in season 4 in one of three ways. One, character tells random allegorical story while the camera slowly zooms in or out. Two, characters do some everyday activity while music plays. Three, tense, possibly violent scene that may include an allegorical story or everyday activity. Do these scenes really connect? They either connect in the most unsubtle way imaginable or not at all.

Ultimately, I must chalk this up to the lack of compelling characters. These kinds of scenes worked in previous seasons of Fargo because they were interesting quirks to a fleshed-out cast. With so many characters competing for scenes now, characters are defined only by the quirks and I do not care. The deeper humanity so important to the series is gone. I feel like Fargo learned the wrong lesson from V.M. Varga in season 3. He was a collection of weird quirks rather than a character, and in my opinion was the weakest “villain” of the series. Now every character is taking a cue from Varga.

Do not even get me started on how bad a character Gaetano is, or how Chris freaking Rock is playing someone completely subdued and barely getting any scenes to shine.

The result is a cautionary tale of bad pacing and bloated ideas. This possibly could have worked if the narrative at least moved. Here we are three episodes in, and little has happened. Every episode is a slog of repetitive scenes that have yet to really take the story anywhere. This is a show that typically excels at creating immediate excitement and conflict, and it has completely failed to do so in three episodes now. Five different stories are told within a single episode, even if they don’t particularly have anything to do with each other.

Right now, it looks like the 3 years between seasons 3 and 4 did not benefit Fargo, but rather proved why the show should not have come back. I hope that this roasting looks ridiculous by the end of the season and proves me wrong. There is no doubt that Fargo has to prove me wrong, though. Right now, I cannot help but wonder what in the world happened to this once amazing show.

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Images Courtesy of FX

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