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Why ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ or ‘A Serious Man’ Should Have Been the First Coen Brothers’ TV Show

Why 'The Hudsucker Proxy' or 'A Serious Man' Should Have Been the First Coen Brothers' TV Show

On
paper, it’s not hard to understand why FX decided that Joel and Ethan
Coen’s 1996 favorite “Fargo” would be the prime Coen-crafted candidate to
expand into a TV series. For one thing, it’s arguably the brothers’
defining film both in terms of name recognition as well as the way it
offers the purest distillation of their darkly comic worldview.  It also
fits nicely into the particular niche the network has carved out for
itself over the years; stretching all the way back to their first major
original series “The Shield,” FX has built much of its reputation on
regional crime dramas, with a library that has grown to include the Deep
South goings-on in “Justified,” the Southwest slayings on “The Border” and
the Beltway espionage that occurs week in and week out on “The
Americans.” “Fargo” allows them to plant their flag in the Midwest and use
that chilly backdrop as a staging ground for various kinds of
malfeasance, up to and including murder.

Although FX is clearly
counting on the “Fargo” brand name to hook curious viewers, both the
network and the show’s minders, including showrunner Noah Hawley, have
repeatedly stressed that their “Fargo” has little to do with the Coens’
“Fargo” beyond the title, the setting and the motivating crime-gone-wrong
story device.  (The filmmakers meanwhile have acknowledged the divide
between the show and the film in their typical way: by not talking about
it.)  Despite their insistence, though, it’s difficult to watch the premiere without mentally mapping the movie onto the series. Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard may not be an exact doppelganger of
William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, for instance, but his plight—an
ill-advised partnership with a criminal of dubious methods (Billy Bob
Thornton)—and his just-this-shy-of-broad performance makes him seem like
an awfully close relation. 

Likewise, while Allison Tolman
doesn’t face the Herculean task of replacing Frances McDormand as
pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, her intrepid investigating
officer Molly Solverson does come equipped with Margie’s dogged
determination and general good humor. Overall, the similarities between
the pilot episode and the film are striking enough that I at least kept
wishing the new “Fargo” would either declare its independence more boldly
or just let Jerry… uh, Lester be Jerry and be done with it. (And yet, I
guess the pilot did accomplish its primary job of making me want to see
more, if only to witness the exact moment when Hawley establishes the
series as its own creature.)

I’ll admit that some of my initial
disappointment with “Fargo” also stems from the fact that there are two
other Coen features I’d much rather have seen brought to basic cable
ahead of this one: 1994’s corporate satire “The Hudsucker Proxy” and
2009’s “Why doth God hate me?” comedy “A Serious Man.” Even though both
are less saleable pitches than a wry Midwestern crime story, creatively
they’d seem to translate more successfully to the TV model right out of
the gate. (Not coincidentally, they’re also two of the less
commercially popular entries in the Coen canon, which might help
modulate viewer expectations.)

The appeal of a small-screen
revamp of “Hudsucker” lies in the idea of someone refining the shaky
foundation the Coen’s laid two decades ago. Their highest-concept—and
highest-budgeted—feature at the time, “The Hudsucker Proxy” uses the
excessively stylized form of a Frank Capra-by-way-of-Terry Gilliam
feature to skewer the venal inanity of corporate America. It’s a marvel
of production design, unfolding on cavernous sets located inside
towering skyscrapers. But the characters have a tendency to get lost
amidst the late ’50s-inspired scenery; even Paul Newman, one of the most
magnetic actors to grace the big screen, is frequently upstaged by
inanimate objects in the foreground and background, be it a ticker tape
or the hand of the giant clock that gazes out at New York from the top
of the titular company’s headquarters.

The extravagant trappings
have a tendency to suffocate the movie, but “Hudsucker”‘s core story has
never been timelier, with more than a few contemporary corporations
displaying the same casual disregard for ethics, fair play and goodwill
towards men practiced by Newman’s cigar-chomping profiteer. Being
forced to shrink the enterprise down to a TV budget scale might very
well sharpen the characterizations without necessarily sacrificing all
of the period flourishes that are a crucial part of the movie’s
aesthetic. Then again, time-shifting the televised “Hudsucker” to the
present day would have its advantages, among them freeing the cast from
feeling obligated to mirror older performance styles, like Jennifer
Jason Leigh’s distressingly robotic Rosalind Russell act. Watching
“Hudsucker”‘s wide-eyed puppet president Norville Barnes (originally
played by an appropriately wide-eyed and gawky Tim Robbins) navigate the
lush lifestyle enjoyed by today’s absurdly well-compensated CEOs opens
new comic possibilities as well. Finally, the extra room offered by a
10-episode run would allow for an exploration of the various nooks and
crannies of the Hudsucker building—and larger business plan—only
tantalizingly glimpsed in the feature.   

There’d be no escaping
the film-specified time period in a television adaptation of “A Serious
Man,” and a wise showrunner wouldn’t want to anyway. Probably the
closest the Coen’s will ever get to autobiography, the movie draws on
their childhood spent in a heavily Jewish suburban enclave in ’60s-era
Minnesota and recreates that time and place with the same specificity
seen on such “Remember When?” nostalgia pieces like “The Wonder Years” and
its current ’80s companion piece, “The Goldbergs.” Unlike those series,
though, “A Serious Man” doesn’t view the past in an even slightly romantic
light, with the directors treating their homestead with the same
hilarious callousness that an Old Testament God lavishes on the film’s
poor, put-upon Job stand-in, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). 

Larry’s
quest to understand why his Creator seems intent on torturing him
through a series of major and minor humiliations occupies the bulk of
the feature’s runtime, but a TV series could expand the canvas and
function as more of a portrait of an entire community rather than a
single, screwed-up individual.  One of the (to my mind, incorrect)
knocks against the film is that it’s too grotesque in its presentation
of the folks who populate this Jewish ‘hood, whereas an ongoing series
would by necessity strive to humanize the various residents around Larry
in order to keep viewers returning week after week.  (Unless the
writers opted to pursue the “2 Broke Girls” model of purposefully writing
shrill caricatures, but that show’s free-falling ratings indicate it
shouldn’t be viewed as much of a model…if its viewed at all.) But it’s
still possible for a (slightly) kinder “Serious Man” to carry plenty of
bite—after all, it wouldn’t be authentically Jewish if you didn’t feel
somewhat guilty about laughing. 

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