This might be the most cinematic season of TV I’ve ever watched. I’m not referring to the production values (which are outstanding), but to the way the season is structured. In this era we’re all calling Peak TV, it seems that a lot of cable and streaming shows are trying to feel like movies that have been broken up into pieces. But most of them, like your Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks, they really just take a lot of characters, anchor them in their own storylines, then have them run concurrently for an entire season and crash together in the end. Nothing wrong with that, but Fargo Season 1 really just kept the focus on two police officers in pursuit of two criminals. It didn’t feel like every episode was just a collection of scenes from different movies, it was one conflict that built and sustained itself sustained itself for an entire season, and every subplot and supporting character was in service to that central story. That is pretty much singularly unique in my TV experience.
Going in, I was expecting Fargo to be medicine. I was watching it just so I could say that I had. I’d expected to appreciate the craft of it, then go back to watching shows about dinosaurs on spaceships or whatever it is I do. But whatever the TV equivalent of a page turner is, Fargo is it. The scope of it, the beautiful bleak wintery-ness, the way suspense and dark comedy are successfully mingled. There are so many funny, violent, suspenseful moments that are going to stick in my brain forever. And the characters! We’ve got to talk about those characters.
Every small town needs a Molly Solverson. The perfect cop, tenacious and smart, good humoured when she’s able, steely when it’s necessary, but a real person for the full duration of the season. There’s Martin Freeman playing against type and using his innate likability to create a wholly unique little wimpy monster. A guy who’s played put upon characters who then gets a chance to break bad, Freeman accomplishes in ten episodes what Bryan Cranston did in sixty. And wow does Billy Bob Thornton play maybe the all time best TV villain. Side note, I used to think Malvo was this master criminal, the second time I saw the season I noticed just how brazen and careless he is. He lives as long as he does through sheer luck and the incompetence of the people trying to catch him, and it should bug me, but Thornton is at Rickman in Die Hard levels of charisma throughout this season so who can even get worked up?
There’s something so nice about going into a TV season knowing that it’s a one-off. TV by its nature plants seeds and leaves dangling threads in an effort to sustain viewer interest over hopefully a number of years. The temptation to sequel bait must have been overpowering even in an anthology series. Fargo has the confidence to say no, here’s our story, it has a beginning middle and end, you won’t see these characters or this setting again, but if enough people watch it we’ll give you the same kind of story next year. It’s so not how television, or even a lot of big screen franchises work nowadays. But it’s a rare pleasure to settle in and watch a really long movie that is nevertheless not going to overstay its welcome, and I’d like to see it happen more often.
If I Had to Nitpick…: Eh, the pilot is terrific, and then it takes a little bit of time to ramp up to that level of quality again. That’s more to do with the great episodes of the season being just that great, and not to do with any particular failing of what comes before.
Notable Episodes: The pilot wastes next to no time making us want to get comfy in this world. “Buridan’s Ass” is a visual treat that features an extraordinary and unforgettable pay-off in every storyline. “A Fox, a Rabbit, and a Cabbage” handles the aftermath of a sudden time jump with pure class and has the most chilling character beats of the whole season.
Honorable Mentions: Season 2 is basically as good, it’s certainly got the same level of critical acclaim. But something about the freshness of the first season, as well as how clean and concise it is, and something about this particular combination of these particular actors, cements Season 1 as my favourite. That’s down to personal preference though, Season 2 is fantastic as well.