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Daily Reads: Why ‘Fargo’s’ Second Season Outmatches Its First, How Aaron Sorkin Designed ‘Steve Jobs,’ and More

Daily Reads: Why 'Fargo's' Second Season Outmatches Its First, How Aaron Sorkin Designed 'Steve Jobs,' and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. God, the Midwest, and Narrative Structure: Why “Fargo’s” Second Season Outmatches the First. 
Noah Hawley’s “Fargo,” the TV spinoff of the Coen Bros. movie of the same name, which aired its second season premiere on Monday, has racked up critical acclaim for everything from its direction to its acting. Many claim the second season outmatches the first by a long shot, but how and why? Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff explains why “Fargo’s” second season is much better than the first.

There simply isn’t a great fictional Midwest like there is a great fictional California or fictional South or fictional New York City. We’ve had plenty of great authors and filmmakers from the Midwest (including the Coen brothers, upon whose film this series is based), but they tend to tell stories about other regions, or their fictional Midwests work primarily as satire, which is fine but can wear out its welcome. I think this has something to do with the very structure of Western narrative. At its core, Western narrative is progressive, but Midwestern narrative is conservative. I don’t mean these terms in any political sense. I simply mean that most narrative is weighted toward change, but most Midwestern narrative isn’t. There are, of course, many exceptions, but the following usually holds true. Most stories we tell are told from the point of view of the disruptors, the people who enter a closed system and shake it up, or the people who exist within that system, then see something they want and go after it. By the end of the story, a new status quo has taken hold, one where things have changed on some level, thanks to those disruptive elements. The traditional Midwestern narrative flips this on its ear. The disruptive elements are the enemies, no matter how well-intentioned. All that matters is getting back to what was once normal. Great Midwestern characters, be they Jay Gatsby (who, yes, lived in New York but was from back West and created by a Minnesotan) or Charlie Brown, long to freeze time, to return to some other age, even if they know it’s impossible. And yet the wolves are always at the door. “Fargo’s” second season is a perfect example. Crime intrudes upon blissful small-town tableaux. Blood spills in a vanilla milkshake. Even the characters who initially seem unhappy with the status quo find themselves working as steadily as they can to get back to it. This tension exists at the heart of the original film “Fargo,” too, where police chief Marge Gunderson wants to solve a horrible crime to solve it, sure, but also to reassert the dominance of the nice life she has, one that violence and money and greed have messed up. In all of its many versions, “Fargo” plays in this middle ground between the thought that a nice, quiet Midwestern life is one of the very best lives you could live and the thought that if you don’t quite fit in it, it can be absolute hell. (That puts this season of the show in line with fellow Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis, whose finest novel, “Main Street,” was a satire about Midwestern towns grinding down their iconoclasts into dust, in the name of the status quo.) Yet the characters in “Fargo” (on TV, at least) have good reason to long for the status quo: God is watching.

2. How Aaron Sorkin Designed “Steve Jobs.” 
Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” written by acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, follows the titular character backstage at three different product launches across a span of fourteen years, eschewing traditional biopic structure for a somewhat more focused take on a legendary figure. Vulture’s David Wallace-Wells interviews Sorkin on “Steve Jobs,” his inspirations, and how the film isn’t about technology at all.

Q: Were you always interested in Steve Jobs? 

A: No. No. I knew what the general public knew, but not as much as a lot of people, I found out. The fandom is incredible, including the sort of virtual fistfights that break out between people who love Apple and people who hate Apple. The hatred of Apple will also include, generally, a hatred of Steve and a hatred of millennials, hipsters, things that people associate with those products. I’m neither a millennial nor a hipster. I have all of the Apple products. Everything I’ve ever written, I’ve written on a Mac. My first computer, my roommates and I chipped in, and we got that first Macintosh — 128K. It had as much memory as a greeting card that plays music. And I appreciate the products a lot. But I don’t have the relationship with them that other people do.

Q: And what did you think of him personally, as a character? 

A: The fact that I am a father of a daughter is something that made it very hard for me at the beginning. Before I met with Lisa, I couldn’t get past Steve’s treatment of his daughter. None of his accomplishments meant anything to me because of this. Even just saying that out loud, I’m really uncomfortable judging the way somebody else was a parent. But the fact is, he denied paternity when he knew, of course, that he was the father, and even after that, he found odd ways to hurt her. I just couldn’t relate to it at all. But if you’re writing a character like this, an antihero who, in the last couple of minutes, takes a couple of steps towards becoming an actual hero, you can’t judge them. I like to write them as if they’re making their case to God as to why they should be allowed into Heaven. And to do that, I have to be able to identify with them; I have to be able to find things about them that are like me, and that I would want to be able to defend.

Q: How? 

A: Here’s how I was able to relate it to myself. I’ve often thought that I would be better off — and this changed when I became a father, so my fatherhood notwithstanding — I’ve often thought that I’d be better off alone in a room, writing pages, slipping those pages under the door, and someone would slip a tray of food back the other way. That if people only knew what I wrote and didn’t know me, then I wouldn’t get called a crack addict, there wouldn’t be this sort of ridiculous fictional version of me that lives on the internet, where I punched people and yelled at people — I’m not able to recognize myself when I read these things. But I would just be seen as an affable guy. If you write Jed Bartlet and the other characters I write, that seems like he’d be a nice guy who’s doing that.

3. “Steve Jobs” and Why Movies Can’t Capture Genius. 
“Steve Jobs” is one in a long line of movies that try to capture the nature of genius and how it engages with the world around it. This is a historically tricky proposition as plenty of movies have tried and failed to capture genius, mostly relegating it to superficial tics and rarely explaining it. Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Zoller Seitz writes about why movies have long been unable to capture genius.

From “Bird” to “Amadeus,” “A Beautiful Mind” to “Pollock,” “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” to “The Theory of Everything,” it’s amazing to think back on all of the different movies about genius and realize how rarely they even attempt to explain what it is, and what, exactly, it does to elevate the genius beyond what’s considered unremarkable or normal or safe. We’re not talking about films where the hero or heroine gains/demonstrates proficiency, as seen in most movies about athletes or musicians: The protagonists of those kinds of stories are more immediately relatable and thus more suited to workaday fantasy. We might not be able to do more than a lame two-step or foxtrot, but we can understand how the hero of “Saturday Night Fever” or the heroine of “Black Swan” might have become an excellent or even great dancer, whatever other demons might have tormented them along the way. We might be able to throw or even take a punch, but “Rocky” does such a good job of showing how a goodhearted South Philly meathead could go the distance, thanks to willpower, love, and a thick skull, that we can imagine ourselves in a similar situation, or at least translate it into terms that connect with our lives, however thrilling or dull they may be. Genius is another matter entirely. Very few movies can peer inside and illustrate it in a way that makes dramatic or explanatory sense to moviegoers. It always seems miraculous in real life, and the movies tend to treat it that way, perhaps because there’s not much else they can do. It feels almost like a corollary of a statement by Arthur C. Clarke (briefly glimpsed in newsreel footage at the start of the film, explaining what a computer is): Any high technology, sufficiently removed from the comprehension of the society that encounters it, is indistinguishable from magic. So films treat it as a kind of magic as well, respected via roundabout verbal descriptions and set pieces that depict epiphanies, discoveries and innovations as the modern equivalent of Moses encountering the Burning Bush.

4. A Brief History of Live TV. 
Last Friday, the sitcom “Undateable” began its third season in which every episode will be produced and performed live, something an American sitcom hasn’t done in over two decades. Though plenty of sitcoms have done a “live” episode here and there, few have committed to the format so thoroughly. HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall tracks the brief history of live TV over the years, including the show that all but killed the format.

“I Love Lucy”: Before “I Love Lucy,” TV comedies came in one of two formats: shot in advance on film, like “Modern Family” and “Broad City” and other current sitcoms; or performed live in New York for viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones, with folks out west getting blurry kinescopes after the fact. But Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and company figured out a new way: performing episodes in front of a studio audience to create the feeling of alive production, but shot on film so they could be preserved for later airings. The series was such a huge hit that genuinely live sitcom telecasts quickly died out.

ER”: For their fourth season premiere, stars George Clooney and Anthony Edwards pushed “ER” producers to let them do a live episode, and to perform it twice, so west coast audiences would get to see a genuinely live version. To explain the different look, the episode was presented as a documentary being shot in the County General ER. While it may have thrilled the actors, it stripped away all of the show’s usual impressive production values, turning what usually felt like a weekly action movie into a kind of community theater version of “ER” that just happened to feature the real actors.

“Roc”: All four of the leads on the Charles S. Dutton-fronted family sitcom had come to TV from Broadway, and thus had experience performing without a net. After a live episode went over successfully midway through the first season, the show’s second season was performed live every week. The gimmick didn’t improve ratings, and the actors were ironically too good for the audience to feel any appreciable difference, so the show went back to live-to-tape for the third season. But it was the first primetime sitcom since the ’50s to do an entire season live, and the last to try it until this new “Undateable” experiment.

5. Mimi Leder on the Struggles of Being a Female Director.
Last week, HBO’s “The Leftovers” premiered its second season to a mostly positive reception. The premiere was directed by Mimi Leder, who has had a storied career in film and television. Over at the New York Times, Scott Tobias interviews Leder about the differences in directing for film and television and the difficulties of being a woman in the entertainment industry.

Q: What are some of the key differences for you between directing for television and directing for film? 

A: I don’t think there’s that much difference between film and television. I watched our premiere episode on a very big screen and it looked like a feature up there on the big screen. Would I have shot it differently if it were just playing in theaters? I don’t think so. I think I would have done it exactly the same way.

Q: You were really known for pioneering the Steadicam shots on “ER” and trying to expand the visual language of television. Do you feel as if television is catching up to you at this point? 

A: [Laughs] I don’t know if television is catching up to me, but I think every story speaks to you in a very personal way and it dictates things, how it should look and how it should feel and what the color palette is. When we decided to come to a new place, I had scouts in a lot of different cities in several states and the color palette of Texas felt right. The sky felt right. The sun felt right. All roads led us here. But to your larger question, I think the visual language of TV has completely changed. As you’ll see on premium cable, each and every one of those shows is a little feature. They’re really done beautifully. There’s a bigger scope and they’re more sophisticated. The lines have blurred quite a bit between television and film.

6. The Shape of Rage: David Cronenberg’s “The Brood.” 
This week, Criterion released legendary body horror director David Cronenberg’s “The Brood” on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s an early Cronenberg picture but one that contains the same psychological weight as his best work. RogerEbert.com’s Peter Sobczynski explores “The Brood” and how it’s a better divorce drama than “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

The strange thing is that “The Brood” is also the first Cronenberg film in which he demonstrates a certain amount of sympathy for his key characters, all of whom are developed to a much further extent than his earlier archetypes who were waiting to get gooped upon. Obviously, we are in total sympathy with Frank as he tries to get to the bottom of Raglan and his peculiar brand of therapy, and we feel Frank’s anger at the ordeal that he and his daughter are being put through as the result of the seeming whims of his ex-wife and her doctor. That goes double for our feelings for Candy as she is forced to see and hear things that no one — especially someone her age — should have to endure as her family unit is gruesomely ripped asunder, both literally and metaphorically. At the same time, while it would have been easy enough to depict Nola as a one-dimensional monster, Cronenberg takes care to remind us that she too is a victim of childhood traumas that she now seems to be reenacting herself — he even shows her parents in a light that suggests that they too are burdened with the guilt of the seemingly never-ending damage that they brought upon their child. Even Raglan is painted in terms that make him seem like something other than the mad scientist that he might have been depicted as in the hands of another director — there is a certain arrogance to him at first that is perhaps understandable but once he realizes that things have spiraled far beyond his control, he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to make things right. This aspect is aided immeasurably by the uniformly strong performances from the cast, all of whom manage to create realistic characters amidst their increasingly weird surroundings — even Oliver Reed, not exactly the shrinking violet of the cinema, turns in a nicely modulated and largely ham-free turn here. That said, while “The Brood” does work surprisingly well as a domestic drama, it functions even better, if less surprisingly, as a horror film. While “They Came from Within” and “Rabid” were more concerned with grossing out viewers with bizarre imagery (not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that), this film found Cronenberg more interested in getting under their skin by creating a palpable sense of tension and then hitting them with brief but powerful moments of sudden brutality. Right from the start, he sets the tone by creating a chilly atmosphere — all the characters are bundled up throughout to fend off the bitter Canadian cold — that perfectly matches their emotional moods. (This is not the kind of film that one can easily imagine taking place in any other season other than the bleakness of winter after the holidays.) The first big scare scene, in which Nola’s mother is attacked, is a little masterpiece of suspense that also inadvertently now plays as a deft parody of the big scene in “Kramer vs Kramer” where father and son get into it in the kitchen over the ice cream. The other great sequence comes when the two creatures arrive at Candy’s school to kidnap her. At this point in the story, we have some knowledge of what they look like and what they are capable of doing — the question, of course, is how to get a rise out of the audience now that they have some kind of grasp of what is going on. Without giving it away for those who have not yet seen the film, I will note that Cronenberg ingeniously pulls it off by cleverly hiding the danger in plain sight until just the right moment. and setting it within the confines of the one place where viewers might reasonably think to relax on the basis that nothing could happen there.

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