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A Walk on the Vile Side: Has TV Gone Too 'Fargo'?
May 3, 2014  | By Noel Holston  | 13 comments

The reviews are in, and they’re overwhelmingly raves, but nonetheless I’m going to forego Fargo. I’ve taken one too many walks on the vile side.

I know there’s an ongoing television drama renaissance. I see critics like Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter and Eric Deggans of NPR rhapsodizing about the embarrassment of riches with which we’re being showered by HBO and Showtime, AMC, FX and Netflix, and wondering how the heck they’re going to find time to watch them all.

But lately it’s become difficult for me not to notice that the vast majority of these must-watch marvels are downbeat dramas about ugly crimes. I’m not so naïve as to deny depravity, but I’m just not eager to voluntarily wallow in it.

Actually, I’m not the only critic to notice. Even though her preview of Fargo, the series, was glowing, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times did note, by way of aside, that Fargo, the great 1996 Coen brothers film, touched themes and nerves that led to The Sopranos, the show that  “...began TV's obsession with excavating human consciousness via the most troubled characters we could create.

In a less charitable Slate.com preview, Willa Paskin opined that FX’s Fargo (10 p.m. ET Tuesdays) appears to exist mainly to point out that “unexpected evil lurks in the hearts of men” which, in her view, is a feeble rationale. “For that we have, and I am just barely exaggerating, almost every other drama on television,” she said.

Amen to that. If I see the phrase “darkest chambers of a human heart’ again any time soon, I may have to fire up my wood chipper.

What is happening now is, of course, an instant replay. It’s a fundamental rule of the hit-hungry world of television that if somebody comes up with a fresh concept and it gets attention, you can bet your three-bedroom ranch that it will be copied and extrapolated until its new set of conventions become cliché.  It’s as true today as it was when I Love Lucy begat I Married Joan and Gunsmoke gave rise to 28 other Westerns (and that was just the boot-count in 1959).

The repetition is more wearisome to me this time because, while the artistic quality is higher, the themes are so much meaner.

Crime, a TV staple since the days of Mike Hammer and M Squad, has been feverishly embraced by cable, where there are fewer restrictions on sadism and gore. But crime is still a crutch. Forsaking the crutch increases the degree of difficulty, which is why dramas without obvious, physical jeopardy – The Waltons, Family, thirtysomething – have always been rare. Still, I don’t think television’s current drama renaissance will be fully realized until we see a lot more series like. . . like, well, I am searching for fairly recent analogies. Mad Men maybe. Parenthood. The Big C.

One of the reasons I’m so fond The Good Wife is that its characters' tests of ethics and conscience involve everyday, relatable challenges: How forthcoming should you be with your kids about your own indiscretions, youthful or otherwise? Should you take on work that might compromise your values?

I’ve come to enjoy the British import Doc Martin, though it can be low-key to a fault, because it mines drama as well as laughs from the lead character’s fear of intimacy and from the supporting characters’ foibles, like an inability to follow through on well-intentioned plans to change one’s life. There’s a character that got addicted to prescription drugs, but no one, despite income problems, has started cooking crystal meth or hiring out as an assassin.

If anyone reading this feels compelled to set me straight, perhaps explain what benefit they derive from frequent visits to the heart of darkness, I await youir comments. I’m beginning to think television is becoming no country for old men.

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I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up!
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Jan 21, 2023   |  Reply
Did your commentary ever resonate, as well as many of the comments below!

Last year my husband and I watched - and liked very much - The Americans, The Bridge, Orphan Black, Broadchurch; this year we loved True Detective. But the confluence of the second seasons of The Americans and Orphan Black sandwiched around Fargo made us reach the "too much" point.

I think I'm particularly disappointed in the high, cold-blooded kill rates in the second seasons of shows that were more restrained initially.
May 6, 2014   |  Reply
Thanks for your comments, MJ. Your mentioning The Americans brings up another point. I am not totally averse to watching a series that's violence. I admire that particular show very much. What resonates most with me and my wife, however, are the marital and parental struggles it dramatizes. I find them more interesting than the spy capers, not to mention more credible.
May 7, 2014
As a young person, and probably close to the target demographic of these shows, I'd like to put forth the idea that modern T.V. dramas are pushing the envelope to get a reaction. Grim, gritty, and graphic sells, and it always has. Shows like the Walking Dead or Breaking Bad are very graphic and grim because technology and advances in the sciences of makeup and CGI allow them to, and the general tone of modern television has changed to reflect the technology. I don't think the medias of the world have gotten darker, I just think they've gotten better at it. Sometimes I'll look at some of the edgier films of the early 20th century, and they're just kind of ridiculous to the point of comedy. The themes were still at least attempting to be grim, but they were just bad at it. Centuries ago, we would watch people hanged, beheaded, or starved to death and picked at by crows. Today, we watch Fargo. Human nature makes violence interesting and exciting until we actually experience it first hand.
May 6, 2014   |  Reply
Interesting commentary. While I totally agree that much of the new TV programs are getting "darker" in drama I have enjoyed watching Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans, Southland and The Walking Dead as much as I have enjoyed Downton Abbey, Friday Night Lights, The Newsroom, Parenthood,The Big C and Men of a Certain Age.
Ultimately it is the quality of writing and the depth of key charactors struggling with their own particular circumstances and challenges that determine whether the program is worth watching in my opinion. If I get a sense that a program lacks depth and simply seeks to push the boundary of good taste then it gets crossed off my list after a few episodes or following the first season.
It is unfortunate that some quality programming doesn't garner sufficient mass appeal, but for now we can't really complain too much. With so much programming, streaming and DVD sources, I think there's still plenty to satisfy anyone's choices.
May 5, 2014   |  Reply
Jay Gold
As always with these things, it depends on the work. Breaking Bad or The Wire could turn crime into a masterpiece. (So could Crime and Punishment.) On the other hand, some shows seem to offer depravity for its own sake and to bring in eyeballs.

Agreed that the antihero has become a fad. But Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Don Draper, Walter White, etc., all are fascinating. Lester Nygaard appears to be of their number. Not a bad tally.
May 5, 2014   |  Reply
Thank you! I so agree! I am so very tired of having to withstand an onslaught of cruelty, depravity, and spattering blood to watch the latest "greatest" shows. Violence in tv drama is like crudeness in comedy...a crutch. Good writing, like in "The Good Wife", needs no such crutch. I heartily agree with you and appreciate your insights.
May 5, 2014   |  Reply
Just a heads-up...Mary McNamara is the LA Times TV critic, not Mary McCarthy.
May 5, 2014   |  Reply
Thanks for pointing out my Mary error. It's fixed.
May 6, 2014
You ask, "explain what benefit they derive from frequent visits to the heart of darkness." The only answer I can come up with is writers, producers and audiences still want to be the moody teenager they were in high school, where everything is tragic and it's a constant contest to our-morose each other. Even M.A.S.H., set in a war, wasn't as dour as so much of what passes for dramas today. Where are the new West Wings, shows that deal with difficult issues but do some from a point of hope?"
May 5, 2014   |  Reply
Thanks, Noel, for your comments.

From it's start, I've watched FX's Fargo and plan to follow through with it's season because I enjoy it (so far). What I routinely adhere to is this: if a consumer dislikes a product, then the consumer ceases consuming. Per your opening statement (.....nonetheless I'm going to forego Fargo.), it appears you adhere to my philosophy as well.
May 5, 2014   |  Reply
I understand the issue with Fargo and watching the first episode I thought it was going down the all-evil all-the-time path, but was so pleasantly surprised when [spoiler alert] the Billy Bob Thorton character did not kill the police officer during the traffic stop. To me his character became a trickster (as in mythology), who only brought havoc to people who needed to have their life turned upside down.

Hannibal is the turning point for me. I truly love Bryan Fuller's work, Dead Like Me, and Pushing Daisies, but Hannibal for as stylish as it is, seems to be torture porn. I don't see anything deeper in the storytelling of Hannibal, no profound insights into human nature or maybe something with roots in mythology.
May 5, 2014   |  Reply
As one of those TV critics who raved about Fargo, I also respect Noel's opinion. I've said much the same over the years about Hannibal, American Horror Story (particularly the 1st sequel) and Sons of Anarchy. But I see Fargo in a different light. Same for HBO's recent True Detective. Art vs. "torture porn?" I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder. But there's always the Hallmark Channel. Which at the other end of the teeter totter, is almost invariably too sticky sweet for its own good. Latest example from this perspective: Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
May 5, 2014
I think it's important to draw a distinction between the grimness of something like Fargo and the empty vile of something like Criminal Minds. This downbeat trend is certainly not binary and it's fair to recognize the gradation.
May 4, 2014   |  Reply
I do recognize the distinction. Respect it even. But at some point, for me at least, the overall grimness just fouls the pond.
May 5, 2014
I completely understand and agree with you. I, too, have taken a walk on the vile side for too long and I have reached a critical level of Saturation!! I walked away from American Horror and CSI a while back for that exact reason. As I grow up more, the violence and cruelty on TV doesn't have any entertainment value. Just like you, I find myself gravitating more towards "the good wife" and "the Cosby Show". Great article
May 4, 2014   |  Reply
Kelly Williams
While I am a fan of Fargo, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, I concur with your overall assessment that too much of bad things is a bad thing. Some balance in artfully and entertainingly portraying humanity is welcome and needed. It's one of the best arguments we have for supporting PBS… with our wallets and with the tiny amount of government help it gets. Yes, they are too often Brit imports, but without the influence of ad dollars there can be room for themes that uplift and… can you believe it… educate! Import column. Thank you.
May 4, 2014   |  Reply
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