2014 brought two critically acclaimed crime miniseries, True Detective and Fargo. Both developed a strong fanbase, both were nominated for scads of Emmys, and both are expected to return for follow-up seasons with totally different casts. Yet while one of the miniseries delighted me, the other left me cold. Ironically, the one that left me cold wasn’t the one set in snowy Minnesota, but in the humid Deep South.
I don’t think that True Detective is a bad production at all, but while it features strong acting and an excellent atmosphere, it doesn’t live up to all the hype that declared that it was the Best. Crime. Show. Ever. The two leads were both really good, when they weren’t being boorish or spouting pseudo-deep philosophy that eventually bordered on self-parody. The final half-hour of the series in particular was terrific. Perhaps the most stunning, original aspect of True Detective was the fact that every episode seemed permeated in foreboding and a growing sense of evil and dread.
And for all that, True Detective never really came alive for me. The identity of the main villain is not designed to be deduced, so the viewer doesn’t get to play detective. One character couldn’t possibly be telegraphed as a bad guy any more in his brief introductory scene unless the Darth Vader theme played upon his entrance. The ending has too many loose threads and unanswered questions. The show is always well-made, but it’s never truly great or enjoyable. Without Harrelson and McConaughey to anchor the drama, I wouldn’t have been able to stick with it. If “camp” is “so bad it’s good,” True Detective is trying so hard for greatness that it often fails to achieve goodness.
Fargo, in contrast, comes across as a love letter to the original source material that draws heavily from the original source material while creating something that stands on its own. The dark humor is there, and every episode is peppered with Easter eggs to the Coen brothers. It’s a labor of love, and the obvious affection for the Coens’ legacy makes it clear that this isn’t just a cheap attempt to profit off a classic movie, it’s a desire to expand upon the fictional world without becoming derivative. In this spirit, it’s in many ways an American answer to Sherlock.
True Detective was written with a “transcend the genre” attitude. It was produced with the full expectation that it would get the double-barreled HBO press treatment and become an awards darling. Fargo, in contrast, was clearly made with a lot of people thinking that, “this could be a very bad idea.” True Detective really played things safe. It produced a dark, gritty, crime story; peppered it with a little lecturing about moral nihilism, painted Christianity in a sinister light, and set the story around two profoundly flawed and damaged men. It’s critic and awards bait. Perhaps Fargo triumphed because it was a terrible risk. Many scenes and plotlines are a whisker away from being a cheap knock-off, or a lazy homage, but then they take on a life of their own.
While True Detective features men in a downward spiral, Fargo features men on Chesterton’s moral “road [that] goes down and down.” Thornton and Freeman are equally brilliant as men on the road to hell that turns out to be paved with bad intentions. Their iniquity is offset by Tolman, Hanks (who completely redeems himself for the sixth season of Dexter), and Carradine, the decent, salt-of-the-earth types that you want as your friends. I liked these characters so much I could have spent a whole episode watching them run commentary to a Deal or No Deal episode (perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but the point is, I was always compelled).