The ‘Fargo’ TV Series Positions the Coen Brothers As Modern Day Shakespeares in Love With Themselves

By  · Published on April 16th, 2014

FX Networks

It may not be the best movie of 1998, as its Best Picture honor claims it to be, but Shakespeare in Love is a delight for any drama nerd with a boner for the Bard. Hardly acceptable as a true account of the inspiration for and writing of “Romeo and Juliet,” John Madden’s film is really just a celebration of the work of William Shakespeare by being a pastiche of themes, tropes and lines from his plays. Another proper title for the movie would be “Mark Norman (and Tom Stoppard) in Love With Shakespeare.” In their script are direct reverential references – some of them nods of foreshadowing for things later to be written, others familiar devices employed as general homage – to “Hamlet,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Merchant of Venice” and more.

Some of it is kind of silly if you find that sort of celebratory amalgamation and obvious, literal allusion to be a cheap reduction of an artist’s genius (at least Shakespeare got off better than The Beatles did in Across the Universe), and now that same kind of imitative collage is being done for Joel and Ethan Coen in the new TV series Fargo (making them modern day equivalents of the Bard, apparently deserving of equal admiration and tribute). Despite sharing its name with the filmmakers’ 1996 Best Picture nominee, the FX show is not quite an(other) adaptation or spin-off or remake of the story of Marge Gunderson and Jerry Lundegaard. It is not even set in the same Minnesota town (nor has it yet involved the North Dakota city of the title, either). There are plenty of similarities to the Fargo movie in the show’s plot, characters and tone, but there are also a ton of other Coen movies represented, you betcha!

Unlike most critics covering the Fargo series, I haven’t seen the first handful of episodes, only the pilot. But I’ve heard things, and I’ve seen the preview of next week’s installment, which features certain characters who call to mind Trey Wilson and Brad Pitt’s roles in Raising Arizona and Burn After Reading, respectively. Raising Arizona has already been referenced, in the first episode, with the show’s protagonist, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), breaking his nose in a manner akin to Sam McMurray’s accident in the 1987 comedy. Meanwhile, many are comparing Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Lorne Malvo, to the evil Anton Chigurh of No Country For Old Men and spotting a White Russian special in the diner, which is a nod to The Big Lebowski.

None of that is a bad thing in my book. In fact I love how it fits with the Coens’ own penchant for pastiche and hodgepodge. Basically Fargo is doing to them what they’ve done to Capra and Sturges (The Hudsucker Proxy) and time periods such as the ’30s (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the late ’40s (The Man Who Wasn’t There) and the early ’90s (Lebowski). And the writing and directing of at least the pilot is strong enough that it’s more than just the sum of a bunch of references and visual mimicry indicating what a big fan showrunner Noah Hawley is of the Coen Brothers.

The thing that makes Fargo appear to be different than something like Shakespeare in Love in its tribute is that Joel and Ethan’s names are credited with involvement, as executive producers. The reality is that they’re barely attached to the series and definitely have no creative input. They have read (and maybe have seen?) the pilot as well as an outline of the series and gave their blessing and endorsement, not that either was necessary since they don’t own the rights to their movie, and in exchange they’re getting some money out of it. Presumably they’re merely flattered by the whole thing, but on paper (well, on screen) it looks more like a sort of vanity project in which they’re paying themselves homage. Fortunately, it’s easily found out that this isn’t the case. Plus, there’s more to the show than a love letter to the Coens.

What I find to be best about Fargo, for instance, is how well it builds the world in which it’s set rather convincingly and rather quickly. It’s Coen World, sure, like a dimension constructed out of a simple understanding of their imagination (missing, I would argue, their exact sense of humor) rather than something populated by their actual creations, but it sure does seem like a fully developed world. Credit goes to the way the pilot sets up the ensemble of characters, welcoming us into the lives of people who seem to be major figures in the story but who might also just wind up dead in another scene or two. We don’t meet the cop played by Colin Hanks until the very end, but with only a brief introduction to the guy I felt like he’d been there the whole time, just not on screen, instead going about his days before his fateful interaction with Malvo.

That kind of world building is actually something I don’t always see – or feel is even meant for – in the work of the Coens. They often make sophisticated live-action cartoons and are appropriately thin in many ways. Even their Fargo plays like its set inside a snow globe rather than a universe as wide as that of Hawley’s version. Hopefully the next nine parts of the limited series continue with such a depth of character and setting. Those hints at the reincarnations of Nathan Arizona and Chad Feldheimer (played by Oliver Platt and Glenn Howerton, respectively) do look in preview form to be flimsier props written strictly for fan service – whether self-serving for Hawley or for those of us watching because we love the Coens’ movies.

I’m optimistic that Fargo will continue instead to be clever and original enough where it needs to be, and as long as its helmed by strong television directors like the pilot’s Adam Bernstein and also Scott Winant, both veterans of Breaking Bad (in case you wondering why you got a Breaking Bad vibe from the first episode, now you know), then it’ll be watchable at the very least. There just better not be a blatant wink where there’s a folk singer with an orange cat. That allusion might very well be too soon and come off as being like the kind of spoofy reference you find in a Seltzer and Friedberg movie. I don’t want this to turn into “Coen Brothers Movie (Show).”

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.