In her recent assessment of the FX series Fargo, The New Yorker's esteemed television critic Emily Nussbaum took the analytical road less traveled, coming down against the show whereas most of her colleagues have been lavishing it with glowing praise—much like how Nussbaum wrote negatively about HBO's True Detective at the height of its pop culture boom in early March. She's no Armond White-ish contrarian, though; Nussbaum's opinions and writing are always astute and tighly argued, even if they're divergent from the reader's own stance. Take her piece about Fargo; Nussbaum's main dig against the show, which could also apply to True Detective, boiled down to one central question: "How good does a violent drama need to be to make the pain of watching worth it?"
By her reasoning, it'd need to be better than Fargo. It's understandable to see how someone who's candid about being "burned out on bloodbaths" wouldn't respond favorably to a show in which pig's blood pours through a shower faucet's spout and all over someone, another doomed character gets killed in a blaze of gunfire while strapped to a treadmill, and three people's heads are blown clean off inside one tightly occupied elevator. Similar to True Detective, in which women's dead bodies are propped up against trees and adorned with a crown of deer antlers as Pagan-like exhibitions.
The parallels between Fargo and HBO's hit Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson series don't stop there. Both programs adhered to television's newly popular not-exactly-a-miniseries format, an approach put in vogue over the last few years by American Horror Story but owing an inestimable debt to classic TV anthology shows like The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Outer Limits. Fargo, pitched as a self-contained, one-season narrative by creator and sole writer Noah Hawley, was 10 episodes long and ended last night. True Detective's tallied at eight episodes. Like Fargo, HBO's prestige event series was written by creator Nic Pizzolatto alone, and, unlike Hawley's four-directors-deep show, was only directed by Cary Fukunaga.
That's all structurally speaking, though. In the nuts-and-bolts sense, Fargo and True Detective are even strikingly more alike. The sameness goes beyond their respective story's penchant for death, redemption, and comeuppance. Each includes a single-take sequence of mass murder and mayhem (Fargo's, a building-spanning look at the massacre of an entire mob family seen from the outside; True Detective's, a six-minute-long tracking shot through high-voltage urban warfare). Both ambitiously leap ahead through time, with Fargo's jump to "One Year Later" as the camera glides through the woods and True Detective's seven-year transition beautifully captured in the sight of an aged stuck in the upper reaches of a tree.
Yet there's one big difference between the two shows. Other than the Emily Nussbaum's of the entertainment journalism world, folks aren't talking about Fargo nearly as much as they were concerning True Detective. There aren't any #FargoSeasonTwo hashtags overpopulating Twitter or memes floating around the Internet. Though Hawley once said Fargo had the chance to "break Twitter," the show hasn't come close that kind of impact.
All good, though. Fargo is the blood-soaked, character-driven, bleakly minded TV noir underdog of 2014. And none of that changes the fact that it's the superior of the two shows.
Not taking anything away from True Detective. True Detective expertly toed the line between horror and thriller, with its haunting allusions to Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and nightmarish imagery (think that slo-mo shot of Reggie Laddoux walking around the bayou holding a machete and wearing a gas mask). "The Secret Fate of All Life," True Detective's fifth hour, is a shoe-in for any "year's best TV episodes" countdowns. And in its boldest plot twist of all, Pizzolatto's tale concludes with optimism, not the Wicker-Man-esque climax so many viewers hoped for and spent weeks theorizing about.
But True Detective has its drawbacks, chief of which is its lack of a strong female character. Aside from one-note prostitutes, buxom women who knowingly sleep with married men, and feminine corpses, there's only Michelle Monaghan's Maggie Hart, a potentially strong character who ultimately devolves into the wrench between Rust Cohle and Marty Hart's friendship. Maggie is the problematic one-third of the love triangle for which Pizzolatto couldn't avoid succumbing to convention.
She's no Molly Solverson, Fargo's beautifully realized hero-in-waiting portrayed terrifically by newcomer Allison Tolman. In Molly, Fargo has the heart and soul that True Detective's missing. In interviews, Nic Pizzolatto responded to attacks revolving around his show's Bechdel-repelling limitations by pointing out that it's the story of two men, and, as such, True Detective can't deviate from its dual male perspective. The problem being, though, that both men are, while fascinating and strongly brought to life, intensely brooding and uninviting. Fargo has its male POVs, too, but at their toughest, they're undercut by Molly's mounting resolve.
Fargo's ninth episode is home to a potent moment that encapsulates Molly's importance to the show: After repeatedly watching her diligent police-work get brushed away by her superiors, she lights up when a pair of FBI agents (played by Key and Peele) compliment her research. Finally, she's been validated, and the way Tolman plays the scene, you can see her fight to restrain an explosion of happiness. It's lovely, and it sets Fargo apart from True Detective's dourness.
Like his fictional character Molly, Noah Hawley has defied all expectations. Prior to True Detective's January premiere, anyone with half a brain could've guessed that HBO's latest prestige property would be something special. Matthew McConaughey plus Woody Harrelson plus The Home of Tony Soprano/Tyrion Lannister/Nucky Thompson equals the closest thing to foolproof television you're likely to find. Fargo, however, seemed like a weird idea with a high disaster probability. Approved and very minimally produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, the Academy Award-winning filmmakers behind the 1996 film, FX's gamble was sold as Hawley's loving homage to all things Coen. Taking some of the movie's character archetypes, as well as ones from other Coen Bros. films, Hawley fashioned a Minnesota-set crime drama fueled by dark comedy, sudden bursts of violence, and a well-balanced roster of good and bad people.
As the easily pushed-over insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, Martin Freeman is the direct descendant of William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard. With his combed-downward mop top and predilection to call people "friend," which is close enough to "friendo," Billy Bob Thornton's almost phantom-like hitman Lorne Malvo is cut from the same cloth as Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh. Finally, with her well-intentioned police work, general congeniality, and rational worldview, Tolman's fan-favorite character Molly Solverson is Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson reincarnate.
Various other cleverly deployed Coen Bros. Easter eggs are sprinkled throughout Fargo's debut season, and for that alone, it's the gift that keeps on giving for the filmmakers' fans. Yet that's merely looking at the show superficial pleasures. The magic of Fargo, and what elevates it above every other 2014 television show not titled Hannibal or Veep, is Hawley's masterfully complex, unpredictable, and tonally ambidextrous writing. His actors, all superb, can only going to be as good as their material, and Hawley consistently supplies them with A+ teleplays.
Instead of working overtime to make unapproachable (see: Rust Cohle) and reprehensible (see: the adulterous Marty Hart) anti-heroes likable, Hawley populates Fargo's world with just as many legitimate good guys as there are deviants. To spread kindness alongside Molly Solverson, he created the bumbling but endearing Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), and rather than hinge his show on a humorless deviant like Rust Cohle, Hawley gives Lester Nygaard an extreme, even more rapidly escalated Walter White type of descent-into-badness arc. When Lester completely makes you loathe him by knowingly sending his loving but naive second wife to her death in his place, at the end of episode nine, the viewer's feelings of resentment and anger towards him are powered by the knowledge that he was once a decent man, though one devoid of a spine. Lester's trajectory from bullied wuss to bullied-wuss-who-foolishly-thinks-he's-a-badass is a magnificent demonstration of "Ah, jeez" tragedy.
And, his marvelous downfall notwithstanding, Lester still isn't Fargo's most fascinating character. That distinction belongs to Billy Bob Thornton's Malvo. Thornton's alternately scary and malevolently comical work deserving of as much praise as Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle embodiment.
It takes a truly in-sync pair of exceptional talents to make someone as cold-hearted as Malvo likable, yet that's precisely what Hawley and Thornton did all throughout the season. Malvo was, up until Fargo's wonderfully satisfying season finale, a seemingly inhuman specter of a man, appearing out of nowhere to carry out the devil's work—flesh-and-blood Grim Reaper without any known origins and any remorse.
At his scariest, Malvo could make your veins run cold without raising a weapon. In Fargo's "aces" penultimate episode, Malvo faces off against Molly's diner-owning dad, played by Keith Carradine, in a verbal duel of subtle implications, where talk of mundane things like "cherry pie" turned bone-rattling. Malvo closed the unnerving discussion with this cryptic kicker: "I ain't had a piece of pie like that since the Garden of Eden"; his final statement is so creepily mesmerizing that you momentarily forget how, at the beginning of the episode, Malvo's fugazi, undercover-assassin's act as a Kansas City, Missouri, dentist was genuinely hilarious, producing what's currently the "2014 TV GIF" to beat:
Malvo, akin to Rust Cohle, also voices one of his show's overall themes in a one-part prophetic, one-part beguiling conversation stopper:
For some, pitting Fargo against True Detective is all apples-and-oranges and misses the larger picture: the fact that television is so next-level these days that great A-list actors like Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, and Billy Bob Thornton are stepping away from film sets to deliver some of their all-time greatest performances. It's a spoil of riches; TV, a once-trivialized entertainment medium, is at its creative zenith.
But as is the case in all walks of life, the TV business is one of popularity and starry projection, a high school hallway where the jocks and cool kids (read: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson) always overshadow the quieter eccentrics (Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman). This time, though, one show's a powerful yet flawed and aggressively nihilistic topic of widespread conversation while the other's a towering achievement of distress upon laughs that's been muted by Game of Thrones and Mad Men.
If you've slept on Fargo during its live airings, no worries. Hawley's show merits all the revisionist praise it'll receive in the months, and years, to come.
"How good does a violent drama need to be to make the pain of watching worth it?" Try good enough for tonally varied moments of darkness…
...and, lastly, warmth...
…to all resonate equally.
Something it takes a certain Lone Star Beer drinker 17 fictional years and eight episodes to figure out. “Once there was only dark," says Rust Cohle as True Detective ends. "If you ask me, the light’s winning." In Fargo, the "light" and the "dark" are never mutually exclusive.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer whose other favorite Coen Bros.-related things are Barton Fink, No Country for Old Men, and Brad Pitt's performance in Burn After Reading. He tweets here.