Midwestern Mayhem: Why the “Fargo” TV series is vital and brilliant

William S. Burroughs once wrote, “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” It’s a bold, if apocryphal, reading of the undercurrents of the country but not without its merits. The United States has always promoted and touted the greatest ideals for humanistic liberty and morality in the history of the world. However, that rhetoric is at odds with the practical reality of a country divided by prejudice, greed, self-interest and ultimately craven violence. The dichotomy between the ideal and the actual creates a moral spectrum on which people fall depending on their own beliefs and actions, and it’s also the main theme of the best television show currently airing in the U.S.

Based on the incredible 1996 film “Fargo” by the Coen brothers, FX’s TV series of the same name uses that movie (and indeed the entire Coen filmography) as a jumping off point to deliver some of the best mixture of dark comedy, horrific violence and complicated characterization since “Breaking Bad” went off the air. Spearheaded by executive producer Noah Hawley and his team of writers and directors, the show has used the same snowy setting of the Coen Brothers’ movie over the course of two seasons (and another currently airing) to examine what happens when the chaotic and the orderly clash, and how people gravitate to one side or another in the midst of a moral maelstrom. By taking on such a weighty topic, usually only as a theme or undercurrent, Hawley and company deliver a fascinating and unique look into a world slightly removed from our own but nonetheless existing as a funhouse mirror of the country’s own muddled soul.

Even though every episode begins the same way (invoking the 1996 movie) by stating that it’s all based on true events, the plots are made up whole cloth by the writers and bear only passing resemblance to reality, just like the film. The stylization of the dialogue, production design and cinematography reveals that this is a heightened reality given to philosophical musing and outsized personalities amidst a hail of bullets and murders. “Fargo” revels in introducing agents of chaos into a seemingly bucolic setting and seeing how these stars of Hell affect the people around them. While it’s an outsized persona, the first season’s Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is a malicious man who delights in the torment and pain he visits upon an unsuspecting populace. If personal freedom follows itself logically, it eventually arrives at the anarchic place where Malvo exists, an arbiter of who lives and dies depending on his own warped whims.

Malvo represents the utter extreme of chaotic agency, the malevolent forces that thrive underneath the slick veneer of social mores since time began. But where it gets interesting is that his own brand of darkness begins to change those around him, perverting morally gray people like Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) into becoming their own opportunistic villains and even shaking the foundations of good folks like Officers Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) and Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). But if the show were just a polemic about the hypocrisy or immorality inherent in America, it would be a chore to watch and, while an important indictment, would ultimately be fairly unimpressive.

But what Hawley injects into the series – again in the spirit of the Coens – is a real sense of style and a brilliant (if obsidian dark) sense of humor. In most TV series, the apocalyptic violence that befalls person after person would be cause for grim discussion or simply seeking out justice in a crime procedural (a la “CSI” or “Law & Order”). In “Fargo,” the violence still leaves an impact due to its graphic nature, but the stylization is done so well that it becomes a masterclass in how to heighten reality, further the plot and reveal a lot about the character in as economical a way as possible.

If drama comes from tension between two or more parties wanting opposite goals, comedy comes from that same meeting of opposites, only instead, the juxtaposition isn’t as serious and usually leans towards the absurd. By putting the operatically awful actions of the criminal against the quaint backdrop of small town midwestern life, “Fargo” derives brilliantly unique humor from the clash of cultures. Watching former small town folks Ed and Peggy Blumquist (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst) turn into kidnappers that deal with cutthroat criminal elements while maintaining their polite speech and positive outlook is a pretty bold but singularly unique bit of storytelling that produces a lot of laughter without undercutting any of the tension.

The different tones, brilliant characterization and memorable dialogue is a great spiritual cousin to the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. It would have been easy to simply retell the story of a botched kidnapping from the film, but Hawley decided to take the idea and expand in all directions, encompassing more than what the original film was about while also absorbing works like “Miller’s Crossing,” “No Country For Old Men” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” But the team behind the TV series didn’t just ape the Coens’ style – they instead produced something that would fit neatly alongside the brothers’ works. Both Hawley’s team and the Coens turn in unique projects that are populated by fascinating people spouting quotable dialogue that is filled with philosophical underpinnings, all while being delivered with a beautiful eye to aesthetics and design. But while they share the same motivations and ideals, the two styles are still different enough that the TV show has moved beyond the shadow of its cinematic forebear and is its own rough beast entirely. They are tied together but not beholden to one another.

The movie “Se7en” ends with the lines, “Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world’s a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” “Fargo” lives in that gray area between those two sentiments, as it isn’t a simple story of right versus wrong or a good cop solving a difficult case. It’s a fable of morality set in the tundra of America that presents complex characters navigating a complicated world where temptation allows them to slip further into damnation. Hawley and company have assembled a compelling narrative that acts both as a twisty tale of crime, an insightful character study of people at moral crossroads and a portrait of the disparate elements that collide to produce what resembles America today. But it does all of these things with a real sense of style and an even better sense of comedy, producing one of the most unique TV shows currently airing. As the third season begins, it’s interesting to see where the showrunners will take it and around which dark corners they’ll peer while dissecting the American dream.