Whether you’re a news junkie or you just check your Twitter feed regularly, each new day brings word of another sad murder. On Sunday, 73-year-old longtime white supremacist and anti-Semite Frazier Glenn Miller shot and killed three people outside two Jewish community centers in Overland Park, Kan., in an alleged hate crime. (None of his victims—Dr. William Corporon, 69; his grandson, Reat Underwood, 14; and Terri LaManno, 53—were Jewish but his intent appears to have been to kill Jews.) Also this weekend, in Pleasant Grove, Utah, relatives of Megan Hunstman, a 39-year-old mother of three, were cleaning out her garage when they discovered the plastic-wrapped remains of seven infants, six of whom she says she strangled or suffocated between 1996 and 2006.
If real crimes inspire a story without remembering the real victims, is that even more exploitative than the story which at least keeps their memory alive in the 24/7 torrent of tragic news?
As I tore through the first four episodes of Fargo, FX’s engrossing new 10-episode original extension of the Coen Brothers’ Academy Award-winning 1996 black comedy of the same name, I couldn’t help but think about victims and survivors. Like its classic cinematic predecessor, which tells the story of murder and kidnapping for ransom gone horribly wrong, the show (premiering tonight at 10 p.m. EST) opens with the following text:
“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
As in the film, this is a lie. The Coens revealed that their story, set in 1987, was fictitious, inspired by several actual cases that they strung together and set in that peculiar polite and snowy state where they grew up. The true crime device was and is meant to strap viewers in so they will accept twists and turns without being thrown off the ride.
The FX series, which features entirely new characters invented by writer Noah Hawley, is a no less effective and enjoyable experience. Billy Bob Thornton plays Lorne Malvo, a criminal-for-hire who drifts through Minnesota, bringing with him violence and mayhem. To those he encounters, he acts as the Devil on their shoulder, manipulating them to see how dark a road he may send them down.
One such fellow is Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman (Dr. John Watson on the BBC show Sherlock and Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit film series). A meek and unsuccessful insurance salesman in small town Bemidji, he has a disappointed wife, an embarrassed and far more winning younger brother, and a cruel bully from high school who still torments him. Lester is pathetic and ripe for the picking, and Lorne picks and picks until he drags the man down into his world. In another instance, during a traffic stop for speeding, Lorne calmly menaces single father and clock-punching Duluth police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) into a decision that will haunt him.
Hawley continues the Coen Bros. tradition of offsetting blood and horror with the humor of dim-witted and inept cops, criminals, and civilians trudging through knee-high snow, offering aw-geez/Pete’s sake “Minnesota nice” sayings that hardly seem to fit their dark circumstances. When they meet at the hospital, for example, Lester explains to Lorne that his injuries resulted from the embarrassment he’d caused his longtime bully, Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady), by revealing, in front of Sam’s sons, that he married his high school girlfriend, whom Sam had just bragged about getting a handjob from during senior year. Head in hands.
One may wonder if the truly true crime film or television series is, regardless of its artistic merits, moral. But when the story purported to be reality-based is actually fiction, the viewer may feel even more discomfort and guilt while enjoying the entertainment. When the victims and their survivors are imaginary, the exploitation is of the viewer, who identifies and sympathizes with its victims in a way that transcends the connection they might feel to characters they know to be fictional. You feel the loss when an honest man who’s expecting his first child dies suddenly and violently. And if real crimes inspire a story without remembering the real victims, is that even more exploitative than the story which at least keeps their memory alive in the 24/7 torrent of tragic news? And what of commerce? After all, no matter the artistic intentions of its creators, no studio or network tells a story unless execs believe they can sell it for profit. So, is it wrong to be entertained by it? Is it giving into base urges and morbid curiosity?
Ultimately, every viewer must answer these questions for themselves. I personally enjoy Fargo the film and series a great deal for their storytelling and visuals, and I appreciate the questions that their existences raise. Neither will make me remember the names of real-life victims, but maybe that responsibility is mine. If the ever-growing roll call of names is too long to commit to memory, perhaps that in and of itself is reason to do something about the violence that will bleed into my Twitter feed today.
Written by Justin Monroe (@MBarone)