coen brothers

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Fargo

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Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: Fargo, morality, and lots and lots of snow.

I mean, you watched Fargo, right?

Something I’ve become fascinated with lately is “missing” culture. I haven’t seen True Detective yet, and I have to add the yet there as quickly as I can whenever I say that. Of course I’m going to watch True Detective. How could I not, with how people talk about it?

That’s what happens with shows now. People either watch the “not optional” ones or they spend time at parties telling people that they’re “a few seasons behind.” The entire premise of this series — to get you to hopefully watch a show you should catch up on — requires that you be some sort of mythical beast that doesn’t already have a few lifetimes of TV ahead of you.

Let’s assume you have the time, but you need to be persuaded to spend it with Fargo. You saw the movie at least, right? OK. Well, start there, I guess?

Fargo the show exists in the same world as Fargo the movie, but that’s essentially all you need to know. The show is interested in some of the same themes — what we deserve, especially — but it’s refreshingly its own thing. There are a handful of Coen brothers homages peppered through the season, but they are more affirming than they are distracting. They exist to bring up questions about the bigger universe of both Fargo the show and Fargo the movie. They’re meant as little easter eggs more than big “oh, that guy!” moments.

It feels too slight to just say that it’s not just a cousin to the movie, but it’s an important starting place when discussing the show. I came in skeptical; Fargo is one of my favorite movies. I wasn’t disappointed. The show looks poised to pick up just about every miniseries Emmy available, too, so people have bought into this world.

I’m not going to rundown the plot of the first season. Since the first season is self-contained (supposedly, but some members of the cast broke out so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if that gets reconsidered) this story is “over.” These people, such as they are now, are done in the world of Fargo. This is a completely closed story, and you don’t get too many of those.

Fargo is a hard show to not spoil. I don’t want to give any details here because I want you to go watch this damn thing, but it’s a show that is not uncomfortable taking risks. I’ll say that. Any show where your cast doesn’t even have to last the season — much less the episode — is a show with just an unbelievable amount of suspense. It’s not all blood and death, but man, sometimes it sure is. There’s just something about the contrast of blood and snow. It’s a really striking show, even when there’s nothing too bonkers happening.

I think you should watch Fargo. It’s not that long and you already know the world, somewhat. You don’t know Billy Bob Thornton in it, though. You might wanna check that out, no matter what else you have on your plate.

You can watch Fargo’s first season on FX’s website or on Hulu. You can also read our previous piece about Molly, the cop who subverts the trope of the evil hero in modern TV.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Worst Best Picture: Is No Country for Old Men Better or Worse Than Crash?

nocountry

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 2007 winner No Country for Old Men. Is it better than Crash?

No Country for Old Men is about having agency taken away from you and what you do without it. Javier Bardem earned the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in it for playing a madman who was more force of nature than person. Bardem’s character is chilling and is definitely the best part of the movie, but he’s also a representation of the movie’s “point.” Death is coming for all of us, and we’re probably not going to get much of a say in the matter when it comes right down to it.

No Country wants you to feel hopeless. It’s all about drug money and hired killers, but it’s really about just moving. Tommy Lee Jones wants to clean up the desert but knows that it’s not so much a goal as it is just some loose hope. He knows he can’t actually stop a killer, but he also knows that as America’s favorite grizzled sheriff, he has to try.

It’s difficult to explain No Country, but the best place to start is with the year that it won. 2007 is the year that Lars and the Real Girl, Ratatouille, and Juno all came out. It’s an odd year full of some interesting experiences, but 2007 boils down to one question: No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood?

They are tied together because they’re both dark and loud and intense. Even though they aren’t necessarily similar in a lot of ways, people connect them to the degree that a lot of people are never sure which of the two won this Oscar. That’s sacrilege to No Country fans — it’s arguable that there’s no Best Picture winner that’s as revered in the last 20 years — but you need to deal with one when you deal with the other.

There Will Be Blood is the story of an oil tycoon trying to increase his wealth and influence. Everyone always calls it “intense” and that is the absolute only word for it. I rewatched it for the first time in a few years recently and I felt nervous the entire time. It is a masterstroke of a movie but it will cost you days off your life.

No Country is less about trying to hit you with a sledgehammer over and over and more about making you wonder if anyone in the movie ever had any other choice. It’s tough to spoil and I’ll try my best not to, but No Country sees a lot of bad things happen to some good people.

Tension plays a role, though. Watch this five minute clip:

Javier Bardem’s madman offers the gas station guy a coin flip for his life. You don’t need the surrounding elements of the movie. You don’t need the thread that goes through everything, because all you need to do is watch Javier Bardem just be cold as all hell. That’s essentially the entire movie. Javier Bardem shows up and ruins someone’s day. You don’t want to run into that bowl cut.

Whenever I talk about No Country I am concerned that I am shortchanging it. I don’t like it as much as There Will Be Blood but I don’t think it ever had a chance. Daniel Day-Lewis gives what may be the best performance of my lifetime. It’s hard to compare anything to it. He makes you afraid, not in the way you’re afraid of a person with a gun (and a coin, in this case) but in the way that you are afraid that there’s too much Daniel Day-Lewis in you. You’re worried that you are the monster, and if that’s true then it’s not about evolution. It’s about inevitability.

No Country deals with that inevitability. If you find a bag of money then you probably are already dead. It doesn’t matter if you take it or not, so you may as well take it. The movie wants us to consider if our choices matter or if we’re just living out a story that’s already told for us. That can be a bit of a drag to consider, and No Country is a much sadder movie in that light than even all the murderin’ makes it seem.

Then, after forcing the audience to consider everything, it blinks out. The end is abrupt, maybe more abrupt than any ending I can come up with. All of the loose ends are tied and everything that needs to happen has happened, but it still ends almost mid-sentence. I don’t like it, myself, but I get what they’re doing. I like the idea of thinking about life as a play that we’re acting in rather than a series of events that we drive and control, but I don’t need the ending here. Maybe that’s because the ending isn’t a literal death but a death of idea, and no one likes to watch an idea die. Or maybe it’s because it’s just not my kind of ending.

People will talk about “what it means” or anything ambiguous forever. I will say that No Country always makes me think about its ending, even if I kinda hate it. The opposite of love is not hate but indifference, and I am definitely not indifferent to this movie.

The Best Part: Javier Bardem, who blows the doors off every scene he’s in. His delivery of “friendo” alone is chilling, and he does a hellva lot more than talk in this movie.

The Worst Part: Ending. It’s an important way to end, but there’s a really fantastic scene with Tommy Lee Jones about 10 minutes before the ending. I like that one fine. It’s not a complaint about quality so much as my disagreement with it, I suppose.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Crash is like No Country for Old Men because it is also the story of how coincidence drives interesting run-ins. No Country wraps coincidence in a larger question about if actions and intentions matter. Crash wraps them in a scene where a guy gets into an armed standoff with the cops because he feels like he’s been disrespected at home. The difference (other than the obvious one) is that No Country believes something, even though that something is nothing at all. Crash doesn’t even believe in nothing.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment |

 Image credit: IMDB