By Dane Laborn
When I read about FX’s show Fargo, based on the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, I had pretty much the same reaction the rest of the internet had — this is ridiculous, and a totally stupid move on the network’s part. Well, 10 minutes into the first episode, I paused it, went to the kitchen, and made myself a heaping plate of crow. It’s honestly one of the best things on television right now, maybe THE best now that Hannibal and Bates Motel have both ended their second seasons. I wasn’t the only one, either. All over the Web, people were singing the praises of Fargo, Billy-Bob Thornton and newcomer Allison Tolman. It’s the perfect show, darkly funny and endlessly fascinating.
If I had taken a minute to think about it, I probably wouldn’t have written it off as a dumb decision. As mentioned above, Hannibal and Bates Motel are two other shows in the “Finest Things On Television” category, and another part of the recent renaissance going on in the world of TV. More chances are being taken, creative control is being given to the directors and creators, and our programming is all the better for it. Sure, CBS still exists and as long as it does we will have crap like NCIS and CSI topping the ratings, which are increasingly becoming a less and less reliable way to figure out what people are watching.
Hannibal is a retelling of the chilling stories originally delivered to us by the more than capable Anthony Hopkins. When the show was announced, alongside the casting announcement of Mads Mikkelson (you may remember him doing very hurtful things to James Bond in Casino Royale) as the eponymous Hannibal Lecter, I again reacted the same way as the rest of the Internet, saying nothing could possibly compare to Anthony Hopkins, a man who still gives me nightmares about fava beans and chianti. Again, I was immediately proven wrong. Hannibal is one of the darkest shows I have ever seen, while at the same time being able to convey a beauty that Bryan Fuller, the creator of this as well as shows like Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, seems to see in death. Almost everything he’s responsible for has some macabre beauty to it, and Hannibal takes that and amplifies it past 11, disgusting us in ways that leave our eyes frozen to the screen, like growing a tree through a grown man and replacing his organs with bouquets of deadly flowers.
Bates Motel is another exercise in bringing a beloved film to the small screen, and telling stories that have yet to be told. This time, it’s Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates that is being rewritten, another irreplaceable performance actively being replaced that was immediately written off. Yet, Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore have made us endlessly uncomfortable and chilled us to the bones as Norma and Norman Bates, the uncomfortably close mother/son duo that, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, we know ends in tragedy.
It’s a testament to the ability of both these actors and the creators and filmmakers working with them that the shows beat their source material. Maybe it’s the fact that we get more than a two-hour dose of these characters. I think that’s part of it, but without the kind of writing that goes into them. At the end of The Crocodile’s Dilemma, Fargo’s first episode, Billy-Bob Thornton’s character Lorne Malvo is pulled over by a police officer (played by Tom Hanks’ progeny Colin) and he makes a speech telling the officer he should let him go, or bad things would happen. When he asks why on Earth he would do something like that, Malvo says: “Because maps used to say ‘There be dragons here’, and they don’t anymore. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.” It’s a scene that elicits goosebumps, scares you, and makes you love Billy-Bob in a way you haven’t since Slingblade. It’s also a fairly telling line. Game of Thrones isn’t the only show on TV with dragons right now, and dragons are endlessly fascinating to watch.
Bates Motel airs on A&E, Hannibal on NBC and Fargo has three episodes left in its inaugural season, airing at 8 p.m. on FX Tuesday nights.