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TV Quickshots #16

Fargo – Season 1 (FX; 2014)

After screening the first two episodes of FX’s 10-part anthology-style teleplay twist on the snowy, bloody milieu of Coen Brothers’ cinematic masterpiece, I dismissed this television Fargo as an uninspired, comically inept, tonally mistuned rehash on superior material. After its broadcast run, however, enough reliable sources attested to its quality to convince me to revisit it, to entertain the faint possibility that this humble critic may have been, perish the thought, wrong in his judgments in this particular case.

Oh geez, whatta mess.

The truth is that Fargo begins to find its own voice around the third episode and becomes a markedly more absorbing and even very occasionally affecting narrative of off-kilter crime drama. It doesn’t really become much funnier, one of the biggest problems noted in my PopMatters review linked above; a Coens acolyte will wait patiently for cathartic bursts of loopy deadpan dialogue that never arrive. But it begins to build up a clever interactive relationship with the events of the film Fargo, establishing them as a part of this world’s history.

Oliver Platt’s supermarket giant Stavros Milos, for example, has a mid-season subplot (too swiftly resolved and abandoned) about divine judgment and forgiveness centering around the suitcase of money buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi’s Carl, and his blackmailers set a meeting with him at the top of the parking garage where Carl kills Wade Gustafsson to acquire the money (it’s a Memorial Parking Garage, a droll referential gag). The character proxies begin to dovetail with their original models more as things proceed as well: the talkative and silent duo of underworld types (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard) share a similar survival rate as those played by Buscemi and Peter Stormare; brilliant small-town cop Molly Solverson (Alison Tolman) ends the season pregnant just like the iconic Marge Gunderson does; and the doomed final escape of Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, excellent as always) mirrors the deflating capture of the shifty Jerry Lundegaard.

What emerges as the story marches on, however, is that writer Noah Hawley is a student of the Coens’ other work, too. In particular, the film that finally won the quirky indie filmmakers their first Best Picture Oscar, the completion of the initial Academy Award breakthrough of Fargo, is a major influence. Hawley borrows from No Country For Old Men a suggestion of decent folks’ world-weary resignation in the face of pitiless, violent brutality, giving Bob Odenkirk’s aw-shucks small-town police chief a version of Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue about horrors overcoming neighbourly sympathy. He also adapts the source of those horrors from the aforementioned work. Billy Bob Thornton’s calmly evil, sociopathic mastermind killer Lorne Malvo racks up a frightening body count like Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh while pontificating parables about the order of good and bad, natural and artificial. Thornton, along with Freeman and flashes from Odenkirk, is often the best thing about Fargo, but his primacy in the narrative also reflects an embrace of morally reprehensible, sophisticated, “badass” villainy that is at odds with the cinematic text being referenced and expanded upon in this television version. If I was perhaps wrong to dismiss this Fargo entirely, I was not far wrong about the reasons to do so.

 

The Amazing Race Canada (CTV; 2013-Present)

Much further down the artistic spectrum of rejigged formats, CTV’s Canadian take on the seemingly eternal CBS globetrotting game show/social relationship fishbowl is currently flying through its second season. There isn’t too much to say about it that you couldn’t equally say about the American flagship of the franchise: a heady, irresistible mix of first-past-the-post competitive appeal, traveller’s envy, and the catty mockery of its archetypal contestants (Driven athletes! Laid-back permabaked hippies! Young urban professionals! Parent-child duos with Oedipal issues!), it’s basically an endlessly-repeatable formula for disposable entertainment. Perfect television.

That much of the same can be said for this Canadian version is a statement to its much more confidently staged and edited second season. A brief detour away from all-Canadian settings and overseas (to Hong Kong and Macau) folded easily into the package, too. There’s some smugly quasi-nationalist sniffing in some quarters at the implied conquest of Canadian television by an American franchise, but this criticism ignores the undeniable fact that The Amazing Race Canada features considerably more specifically Canadian content than almost anything else on location-neutral Canadian TV (heck, they had a stand-in for Robert freakin’ Service testing Season 1 contestants’ ability to recite his poetry, for pete’s sake).

Keeping all of this firmly in mind, one can criticize the show for certain structural and/or casting issues. The product placement for Ford, Air Canada, and Scotiabank is much more central to the workings of the show than even the in-show advertising in the American version. Celebrity and semi-celebrity contestants are gradually conquering the whole of the cast, though it’s interesting to see women’s hockey gold medalists with terrible eye-makeup, ballet dancer Rex Harrington reacting petulantly to every setback, and Joanne McLeod of Body Break tell someone to go fuck themselves.

The choice of host might leave the most to be desired, however. Skeleton racer Jon Montgomery got the job, mostly on the collective memory of his attention-grabbing sporting and media performance during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he won a gold medal, celebrated by walking through a jubilant crowd on Whistler’s main street and chugging from a pitcher of beer, and held the amateurish, jingoistic Canadian media at the event rapt with his motormouth charisma in a classic Manitoba hoser accent. He performs most of the hosts’ duties well enough, narrating the challenges and destinations mostly impeccably and welcoming exhausted racers to the leg-ending mat with the requisite mix of cheeriness for good finishes and sympathy for eliminations. But Montgomery might just be a bit too sincere when compared to the flagship’s Phil Keoghan, with his raised eyebrows and non-elimination leg misdirection (the goofily unaffected Montgomery can’t summon the gumption to mislead anyone, even for the telegraphed few moments that Keoghan does so). Keoghan’s slightly knowing air and dry unflappability signals the participatory interpretations and judgments of the viewers at home; who can forget his immortal “Oy vey” when faced with an overconfident team eliminated with an Express Pass in their pocket? Montgomery is not quite as detached, and his earnestness is shared by the show in general, to its very mild detriment.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
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