‘Fargo,’ ‘True Detective,’ ‘Justified,’ ‘Rectify’ and the Construction of the American Small Town, Part II

'Fargo,' 'True Detective,' 'Justified,' 'Rectify' and the Construction of the American Small Town, Part II

In Part One of this essay, I was pretty tough on Fargo and True Detective, accusing them of an absence of imagination, and generosity, in their approach to small-town and rural life. Perhaps I should heed my own call for generosity, however. Both Fargo and True Detective are, in the grand scheme of things (or, at least, relative to so much television that’s come before), ambitious, stylish, well-made shows. In certain ways, they are perfectly wedded to their truncated mini-series form; small towns and miniseries provide and require just enough life to flesh out a narrative but not so much that they necessarily overflow with life, with randomness, imposing their messiness on an auteur’s message. Rejecting for the most part Frederic Jameson’s “thickening continuum” of geographical indistinguishability, both Fargo and True Detective rely on their locales to convey an iconoclasm and remoteness that makes possible the tragic events that transpire. This isolation is reinforced by the general absence of pop cultural signifiers—the television, film, or musical touchstones that have become so ubiquitous in contemporary television and film that they often go unnoticed. [1] Modern technology plays a diminished role, as well (even taking account of the fact that shows aren’t precisely contemporary). Fargo‘s disgraced FBI agents Pepper and Budge work in an old-school, analog file room; the relevant “files” that True Detective’s Hart and Cohle seek are said to be lost in post-hurricane flooding. Instead of GPS tracking there are French Connection-style stakeouts. In an age of cell phones, Fargo’s Gus Grimly nonetheless communicates with his daughter on a walkie-talkie. The “murder board” at the Bemidji police station is a string figure of red yarn and local vernacular (one suspect is identified as the “deaf fella”).

It’s hard to tell if the shows ignore the march of culture and technology as an homage to the by-gone genres they recall (noir, pulp fiction) or whether those genres provide Hawley and Pizzolatto an opportunity to slip out of our networked and interconnected world for a moment, providing a bit of space and quiet to map out their ideas. Either way, it’s hard not to identify a flattening at work. Still, it’s not as if Fargo or True Detective are the first shows to reduce small-town and rural life to one-dimensionality or to a trope. Indeed, twenty-five years before Frederic Jameson wrote his essay on the false, flat history of small towns and nostalgia films, the Andy Griffith Show was providing America with a weekly window into a “time gone by” via Mayberry, North Carolina. Though it was filmed in, and ostensibly took place in, the 1960s, Griffith himself has explained that the show consciously catered to a nostalgia for times past, cultivating an 1930s-ish atmosphere. This is the endless reservoir of our nostalgia. The Andy Griffith Show has been on the air (in some form) since it debuted on CBS in 1961, and audiences continue to watch it today out of nostalgia for a time that the show itself sought to escape via an even deeper nostalgia.

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The Andy Griffith Show was among the first of its kind. By 1971, CBS had seven rural-themed shows in its line-up, a glut of bumpkin-escapist fare so pervasive, so identified with cultural complacency, that Gil Scott Heron indicted it in his seminal spoken-word piece “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (“Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so Goddamn relevant”). That year, as part of an attempt to appeal to a younger, more contemporary demographic, CBS initiated what became known as “the rural purge”—cancelling its entire line-up of rural shows, including Mayberry RFC, Green Acres, and (the year before) Petticoat Junction. As one actor joked, “It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it.” [2] And just like that, the “noble rubes” and barnyard hijinks were gone. But only briefly. A popular (and political) uproar led to CBS’ attempt to placate critics a year later with The Waltons, which followed a decidedly noble family’s travails in a hardscrabble 1930s Virginia.

Initially expected to fail—for both demographic and scheduling reasons—The Waltons stayed on the air for nearly a decade (a run extended by several television movies), and it peaked at Number 2 in the Nielsen ratings in 1973-74. Although it may have been intended to placate the fans of CBS’s canceled shows, The Waltons also marked a departure from its predecessors, in part by being more overtly historical (it took place forty years before its air date) if still folksy, but also by foregoing broad characterizations and humor. (NBC would try to tap into a similar audience via the even more historical, more folksy themes of Little House on the Prairie in 1974.) That said, pre-Waltons cartoonishness would make a brief return with the Dukes of Hazzard in the late 1970s. And the comic conflict between rural unreason and urban sophistication (and exasperation) seen in Green Acres would be revisited, and revised, by Newhart (1982-1990). In other words, The Waltons didn’t really supplant the shows it replaced. It simply added another trope to the mix.

Together, these 1960s and 70s series have provided, and continue to provide, a template for the numerous rural and small-town shows that followed. For main characters and audiences alike, television’s version of small-town America have frequently served as something more than a source of easy laughs. They suggest an escape from, or a corrective to, the misguided ambitions and increasing complexity of American life. There are variations within the tropes, of course, whether it involves shaking off the corrupting influence of New York corporate law (Ed), or a Manhattan transplant at the liminal edge of Alaska’s vast wilderness (Northern Exposure), or the Lake Wobegon-esque hermeticism of a town where everyone is strong, good-looking, and above-average (Gilmore Girls, Everwood, Dawson’s Creek). Northern Exposure debuted a short six months after Twin Peaks and though the two shows are marked by thematic similarities—an outsider arrives from out of town and is introduced to a cast of eccentric characters in a rustic Northwestern setting—Northern Exposure incorporated and civilized Twin Peaks’ rough edges, retrofitting its strangeness to familiar frameworks. [3] Structurally, Northern Exposure was closer to Newhart, even if it seemed a little artier around the edges. [4] Despite their differences, the majority of these more modern rural and small-town series attack the fundamental premise of a show like Peyton Place—Jameson’s “claustrophobia and anxiety,” or the assumption that small towns are prisons one must escape—with aggressive eccentricity (Northern Exposure), geniality (Ed), and/or wit (Gilmore Girls). As enjoyable as these shows were, watching them again, all of the effort nonetheless suggests a touch of over-compensation.

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Though there’s no question that the charm of the more contemporary shows discussed above is revved up high, it’s also true that they are, in many ways, more self-aware and sophisticated than their 1960s and 1970s predecessors. Take Ed, which ran on NBC from 2000-2004.  On one level, it’s a traditional nostalgia show. Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh), a local son of Stuckeyville, Ohio who left to become a New York attorney,  “loses his job and his wife on the same day” (she sleeps with the mailman—which is the first notice that we’re entering the region of television tropes as much as we’re entering small-town America)—and takes off to regroup in his hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio. There, inspired by a brief but genuine romantic moment with his high school crush, Carol Vessey (Modern Family’s Julie Bowen), Ed buys the local bowling alley and opens up his law practice inside. He quickly slips back into a slightly revised version of his teenage life. His social circle is made up of high school acquaintances; two of them actually teach at Stuckeyville High. The main characters, thirty-ish, mostly single, prone to juvenile pranks, remain caught between childhood and adulthood. Ed, in particular, is boyish in all respects, baby-faced, impulsive, stubborn, and, most tellingly, endlessly impressed with his own cleverness. The stakes in Ed are so low, the threat of conflict so attenuated, that Ed aggressively pursues Carol for seasons-on-end without any indications from the show’s creators that his behavior might be inappropriate. [5]

If anything, the show posits Carol’s resistance to Ed’s advances as a violation of the narrative contract, punishing her with a series of terrible boyfriends. Her fiancé, Dennis Martino (John Slattery), was so despised by Ed‘s audience that fans devoted a website to the myriad ways they might kill him off. Meanwhile, the show unfolds a high school sub-narrative, the story of current high school student Warren Cheswick (Justin Long) who (surprise!) has a crush not only on Carol (his teacher at Stuckeyville High) but also on Stuckeyville High’s prom queen (and thus Carol’s teenage analog). In other words, Warren acts as both a bridge and an avatar for Ed, a perfect vehicle for Ed to relive his youth in its actual and its alternative forms. [6] Ed’s second chance also extends to his work. His Stuckeyville legal practice has little to do with his prior life as a lawyer; instead, he becomes a champion of community values—his low-stakes, high-principle, long-shot cases rarely end in a positive judgment, but even so, they often trigger heartfelt confessions or settlements. His clients (aging pastors and doddering party magicians, good Samaritans, a variety of sad sacks), and his causes (turning his bowling alley into a historical landmark, for instance) consistently thrust Ed into the role of quixotic resistance fighter against bottom-line tendencies. In other words, Ed’s legal battles are antithetical to, and a kind of redemption for, his prior work on behalf of faceless multinational corporations—a job Ed was fired from for “missing a single comma in a 3,000 page document.” I mean, is there anything worse than craven capitalism that’s also prissy about punctuation?

But Ed is flush with self-awareness, as well. When Stuckeyville High decides to start a student-run television station, Warren’s vision of the station’s programming sounds a lot like an original pitch for Ed: “Americans these days are looking to television for something comforting, something warm, gentle and reassuring.” The show not only acknowledges its genealogy (name-dropping Northern Exposure early in Season One), and its peers (via a guest-starring role for Picket Fences’ Adam Wylie), it’s also steeped in television history. In addition to the shows mentioned above, the first season alludes to, among others, Archie Bunker, Happy DaysM.A.S.H., One Day at a Time, and The Rockford Files. This might be viewed as yet another embodiment of the loss of small-town autonomy (and identity) at the hands of “identical products and standardized spaces” that Jameson laments. And perhaps it is. But Ed relies on pop cultural memories as a source of stability, using that shared heritage to link the characters in the show to each other and, of course, to the audience.

With its foregrounding of familiar tropes and its web of cultural allusions, you can almost feel the nostalgia of Ed the show, pulling against the nostalgia of Ed the character, in its suggestion that what we long for isn’t the idyll of the small town itself but rather the television shows that have taken its place. And so, although a large crowd shows up to see the cast of Happy Days at a Stuckeybowl promotion, Ed’s attempt to preserve Stuckeybowl itself as a cultural landmark is met with far less fanfare. In its way, this pop cultural nostalgia signals a kind of irreversible cultural shift from a childhood of local exploration to the latch-key childhood of television (or video game) as geographically-indistinct babysitter. [7] Ed embraces cultural signification but dispels with the chaotic surrealism of, say, Twin Peaks by stabilizing that signification. It becomes a kind of currency.

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The persistence of these tropes makes one appreciate all the more those shows that manage to accrue complexity and ambiguity. Justified, for instance, which tracks the life and work of a U.S. Marshal banished to his backwater birthplace, completed its fifth season on FX this year. That birthplace, Harlan County, Kentucky, is vibrant, and the show takes its time establishing not just the region’s class hierarchies but also sub-strata, the teeming and disparate socioeconomic microhabitats that exist even within social classes. Justified plays out against a very real backdrop of failed farms and a changing mining industry (Season Two revolves around the attempts of a mining company to secure land rights) that no longer supplies the jobs and money it once did. [8] Not surprisingly, the citizens of Harlan County view both foreign (i.e.,
out-of-state) corporations and the federal government with wariness. And Justified makes clear that the rise of crime (and drug abuse) in the region is tied to, but not dictated by, economic conditions. Although the show is genre television—it doesn’t pretend to be much more than serialized crime fiction—its creators and writers have learned something fundamental from Elmore Leonard, the genre-master who wrote the novels and short-story from which Justified draws its main character, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). [9]

Justified’s stories are full of family and regional history, nature and nurture, issues of class, race, and even gender. These forces work their way through most episodes, and the result is a cast of characters who make life-and-death decisions in ways that are frequently unpredictable but rarely incomprehensible. There is a local logic to the Justified universe. As a result, its strongest seasons—two and four—are those that are most grounded in Harlan County’s history, culture,
and economics.

At the end of Season Four, as the violence escalates and the stakes are continuously raised, it’s a shared, local memory (of an Apollo astronaut’s helicopter landing at their high school twenty years before) that proves life-saving for both Raylan and his nemesis, Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins), Raylan’s childhood friend and, at times, his uneasy ally. Boyd is a brilliant character—most fans of the show are aware that its creators intended to kill him off in Season One but couldn’t because Goggins was so good—but he may not be the show’s best. It will be a while before anyone comes up with an antagonist as fascinating, terrifying, and ultimately tragic, as the criminal matriarch Mags Bennett from Season Two. Powered by a smart, steely performance by Margo Martindale, Mags is all the more compelling because the character’s power and dangerousness is terrestrial and local—she is inseparable from the Harlan County that she loves and that she sells out, torn between tradition and opportunity, loyalty and fairness, family and community.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Justified’s weakest season—this most recent one—was the first to take events far away from Kentucky (even if it eventually circled back to familiar soil). And it’s probably not a coincidence that this was the first season in which neither of the two main characters had a father figure; Boyd’s father Bo died in Season One, and Arlo, Raylan’s father and Boyd’s surrogate father, died in Season Four. The show’s first steps outside of the well-developed regional and familial history result in a loss of gravity that renders the jokes tinny and more mocking and the violence more arbitrary and gratuitous than in prior seasons.

The show has never lacked for the stereotypes audiences expect of shows in a rural setting (there are “dumb rednecks” to spare), but when it’s on its game, it shares Leonard’s genuine affection for characters, including the dimwitted outcasts. Even better, it plays with those same stereotypes. Outsiders who underestimate the locals do so at their own peril. In the end, Justified pays respect to its characters by constructing a complex moral universe; one worthy of the characters’ life-changing decisions.

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I suppose I shouldn’t find it surprising that each of shows on which I’ve focused centers around the law, whether it be lawmen, lawyers, or alleged law-breakers. After all, the law is our foremost nexus and repository of social and cultural currents. And if criminality is an expression of frustrated ambition, what better specimen than a small-town crook? Even Cecil County, where I grew up, has its version, straight out of Justified’s playbook. In the late 1970s, the area in-and-around the county, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, was the stalking ground of the infamous “Johnston Family Gang,” who made a small fortune stealing farm equipment, cars, drugs, money, and antiques they fenced through friends and neighbors they’d charmed or intimidated into silence. Although the Johnstons “worked” out of Chester County, Pennsylvania, Bruce Johnston, Sr., the ring-leader, was living in Elkton with a girlfriend at the time of his eventual arrest, and the gang’s crimes routinely crossed state lines into Maryland and Delaware. From a distance, the Johnston Gang seems in keeping with television’s tradition of hillbilly rebels—the kind whose crimes are more ornery than malicious.

But the Johnstons were ruthless. In 1981, Bruce Sr. and his brothers Norman and David were convicted of murdering six people (among them three teenagers, including Bruce Jr.’s fifteen-year old girlfriend, Robin), and attempting to murder Bruce, Jr., in order to silence potential testimony against them. Papers around the country covered the trials, and in the end each brother received multiple life sentences. Just five years later, in 1986, the Johnston Gang served as the lightly-fictionalized basis for James Foley’s At Close Range (starring Christopher Walken and Sean Penn), providing fifteen fleeting minutes of fame for our pocket of the mid-Atlantic.

The Johnston legend did not end with those convictions, however. In 1999, Norman hatched a daring, if old-school, plan of escape, managing to break out of Huntington State Prison by “stuff[ing] a dummy trimmed with human hair into his cell bed, then bust[ing] through window bars and vanish[ing].” He avoided custody for 19 days. And for those 19 days he was a constant presence in the papers and the constant source of sightings—on a porch, in a park, at a fruit stand, along railroad tracks—and speculation in Cecil County, particularly that he was returning “for revenge or to get money.” Johnston’s escape provided ample opportunity for city papers to reinforce small-town and rural clichés, proving that hackneyed depictions of small towns are not the exclusive province of the television writers’ room and translating the county’s “cornstalk lined neighborhood yards” into hoary tropes:

None of this is comforting to residents of Cecil County, many of whom are used to leaving doors unlocked. Now, many of them report staying home, with their windows locked and front door bolted. Streets that last week were filled with the noise of children on bicycles have fallen silent.

There’s no question that Johnston’s presence was unsettling for locals. But the above is the stuff of folklore, not news. Instead of terror, the evidence suggests that, like the curious teens of Rectify, the people who lived along the Mason-Dixon line enjoyed their brief flirtation with the lawlessness (or taboo) that Johnston symbolized. That, not fear, goes a long way toward explaining why copies of At Close Range flew off the shelves of local video stores during Johnston’s time on the run. Buried under the bullshit in those 1999 newspaper articles, as well, is a sense of pride, a belief among locals that Johnston’s knowledge of the land and homegrown resilience would be enough to evade the massive manhunt dedicated to his capture:

“He knows the area. … The man was a hunter. The man was a farmer,” said Tim Bickling, who has been following reports about the manhunt. “If he wants to hide, he can hide,” said Bickling, standing outside his white clapboard home in nearby Cherry Hill.

The combination of memory, fear, morbid fascination, and regional pride is potent, and the area buzzed for the duration of Johnston’s flight. In the end, however, his capture proved both
anticlimactic and a little comic:

But for days on end, he was on the run from state troopers, crouching in the cornfields, his heart pounding with each pass of the state police chopper. He was frustrated by his inability to steal new cars with tricky alarms and to operate self-serve gas pumps. After 20 years in prison, even his old Chester County stomping grounds didn’t seem the same. “He was dazed by all the change,” said his brother, Joe Rivera, who spoke to Johnston once during his time on the run.

For all his ingenuity, Johnston couldn’t anticipate or adapt to the changes in landscape and technology that took place during his twenty years away. There were new housing developments and factories where once there were open fields. His old networks had dried up and disappeared.  And so, after all of that work to get free, he escaped into a world that was not just unwelcoming but foreign to him. Which makes me think of Daniel Holden’s attempts to navigate a once-familiar world that similarly moved on, inexorably, during his twenty years in prison. The irony, of course, is that these disorienting forces of change are also those that might, eventually, set Daniel free.  Even then, however, it can’t help but be a long, dark journey.

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of poetry, Tremolo (Harper 2001), was awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have been published in The Boston Review, Coldfront, the Columbia Review, Hyperallergic, Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Brooklyn.


[1] It’s easy to point to shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Versonica Mars, and even light comedy-dramas like USA’s Psych, all of which rely on popular culture in a variety of ways.  But even a show as by-the-book as CBS’s NCIS includes a character (Tony DiNozo) who provides film-based metacommentary on the narrative.

[3] Some shows, like David E. Kelley’s Picket Fences, tried to triangulate Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, keeping a touch of the menace but losing the strangeness.  Picket Fences also stands out for its embrace of hot button public/social issues. It struggled with ratings for most of its relatively short life, however.

[4] The shows share not only a conceptual framework but also a flair for the surreal with their forebearer, Green Acres.

[5] Although I tend to disagree with her examples, and even (to some extent) her thesis, it’s hard not to apply Genevieve Valentine’s take on the nice guy stalker to Ed Stevens. See http://www.avclub.com/article/full-boyle-guys-who-dont-hear-no-just-arent-funny–202474

[6] Like Ed, Warren has an unpopular classmate (Ginnifer Goodwin) who pines for him. Ed never truly considers Molly (Lesley Boone), his funny, charismatic, loyal friend, an option. Unlike Ed, Warren eventually reciprocates the attention.

[7] Its purest form can be found on VH1’s contemporaneous (and successful) pop culture/nostalgia-fetishizing shows like I Remember the 90s and Pop-Up Video.

[8] The latter is the result of a variety of factors, including depletion from a century of mining and the advent of mechanized surface mining that has cut down on the need for manpower (while devastating the landscape). See http://www.maced.org/coal/mining-employ.htm

[9]
Givens is, himself, an anachronism, a throw-back to the shoot-first lawmen of Westerns (the genre that gave Leonard his start).

[10]
Although Season Two recently began, I’ve limited my analysis (for the most part) to Season One because I’ve had time to watch and re-watch the shows. While I’ve enjoyed Season Two a great deal, the show really demands more time and attention than I’ve been able to devote to it.

[11] For Malvo, animal is our true nature, and he believes (and Lester Nygaard seems to prove) that embracing our inner-predator constitutes a liberating return to form. For Gaines, however, our primal origins constitute (literally) a form of original sin. As a result, Rectify inverts Fargo’s frustrated race-to-the-bottom into the story of our failed transcendence.

[12] If I have one complaint about the show, it’s that it leans a little heavy on this wonder, with its barrage of lens flares, its high blue skies, and its endless meadows.

[13]
Bigger surprises lurk in Season Two.

[14] It shares this sensibility with Justified, whose.  Its traveling evangelists in Season 4 aren’t saints, but they aren’t wholly insincere, either. And there’s no questioning at least some positive influence on at least some portions the community (I’m looking at you, Ellen May).

[15] Erik Adams, at the AV Club, reads these scenes as a straightforward Christian allegory (and Brown’s character as, essentially, “the Devil”). I don’t read it quite so narrowly, if only because the “temptation” offered by Brown’s character is so slight, so temporary, and, in the end, oddly
therapeutic
.  It may have set Daniel on the path to his baptism, but not because of any latent evil. Rather the experience lets him know just how lost he is (and remains).  See http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/rectify-drip-drip-97543

[16] Cohle is, perhaps, most guilty of inattention – neglecting the moment, community, his own needs and hiding behind work and nihilistic cosmology.

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