Those who are passionate about television, by and large, have come to embrace the concept of a limited-episode season. It means, after all, that shows aren’t forced to pad out storylines and time reveals for specific times of the year (specifically November and May, otherwise known as “sweeps”).
But the less than 22 episodes approach means you have to say goodbye to a show far sooner than you might like — something that’s definitely true in the case of “Fargo,” which ends its stellar 10 episode run this evening.
In case this is the first you’ve heard of it, the FX drama series was created by Noah Hawley while invoking the title, tone and location of the Oscar-nominated Coen Brothers masterpiece of 1996. If you’ve been watching all season long, then you’ve enjoyed the talents of its stellar cast, including Billy Bob Thorton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Keith Carradine, Keegan Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Oliver Platt, Kate Walsh and breakout newcomer Alison Tolman.
You’ve also probably been working hard to figure out exactly how the movie and show were connected. Since the beginning, “Fargo” struggled under the pressure that comes with being inspired by such a memorable film, complicated by the fact that the exact relationship between show and film was a little murky. Coen Brothers fans have delighted in finding references to other Coen-related works in episodes — including a massive tie-in regarding a briefcase of money that is presumed lost at the end of the movie, and reappears in the show.
But the show itself was developed without the Coens’ involvement (though Ethan Coen did review the pilot as “Yeah, good” — a rave review) and is fully credited as being the work of Hawley, who wrote every episode — representing another example of auteur-driven television that made “True Detective” such a standout earlier this year.
Of course, “Fargo” is an auteur riffing off another auteur’s work. Rewatching the original “Fargo” in anticipation of the finale, what stands out sharply is how good the Coens are at drawing out such a very specific culture of people, aggressively nice in all the best and worst ways. The men who blush at swearing, the women whose response to a restaurant recommendation is “Is it reasonable?” — there’s something special about the North Dakotan culture as captured in those 98 minutes, a sentiment echoed through to the series.
Does it reflect the reality of life in Bismark and its like? Not even the cast can really say. (While “Fargo” the film did shoot in Minnesota and North Dakota, the show was largely shot in Canada, specifically Calgary.)
The only part of “Fargo” that pushes credibility for me is the concept that the North Dakota area is so full of hardened criminals and killers; or at the least, that they all keep seeming to run into each other. But “Fargo” doesn’t quite exist in reality anyway; the world of the show is just slightly more heightened, while also being clearly defined on a level only seen on the best shows.
Having seen tonight’s finale, at this point I feel prepared to say that we may have taken “Fargo” for granted — especially given that like “True Detective,” “Fargo” is a limited run series that, should it return, will look very different thanks to cast turnover. Television fans may have enjoyed the series as it aired, but they have perhaps not savored it the way they might have, had they been conscious of the fact that the show was 10 episodes and out. It’s the downside of this amazing era of television we’re currently enjoying; when brilliant writers and actors make a regular habit of stopping by cable, it’s easy to assume that they’ll just keep doing it.
“Fargo” may continue in some fashion after tonight’s finale, but it submitted itself as a miniseries this year for the Emmys. Plus, there’s always been a sense of an impending ending to the show’s momentum — the sensation all season long that the car was just about to go off the cliff.
It’s the sort of momentum that differentiates a show like “Fargo,” conscious of its own mortality, from a show like CBS’s “Under the Dome,” which should be working towards something resembling an ending, but will instead be stalling for at least another season. Working towards an ending results in great television. It also results in a few tears, when you realize that, as the poet wrote, you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.
Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” franchise has found success with this format, but much of its appeal draws on how that Ryan Murphy and his writing staff are crazy people who do not burden themselves with things like “limits” or “sense.” It’s fun to watch, but has a much more ephemeral quality.
Meanwhile, these 10 episodes of “Fargo” have a chance of standing out as one of TV’s great novels, limited in its run but not without the potential for a sequel. The hope then becomes that should a sequel happen, it’s not only as good as this first run, but that we appreciate it on the level we should.