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.

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Blu Tuesday: Fargo, Spotlight and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Fargo: Year Two”

WHAT: After small-town beautician Peggy Blumquist (Kristen Dunst) accidentally runs over the youngest son of the Gerhardt crime family, she unwittingly escalates a turf war between the Gerhardts and the Kansas City mob, dragging her loyal husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) and local sheriffs Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) into the conflict.

WHY: Unlike “True Detective,” which fell victim to the all-too-familiar sophomore slump, “Fargo” positively thrived in Season Two, perfectly towing the line between black comedy and crime thriller. A big part of the show’s success is just how well it’s cast from the top down. Though Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst and Jeffrey Donovan (as the eldest and nastiest of the Gerhardt brood) are among the standouts, there’s not a single weak link in the entire ensemble. The writing also continues to be top-notch – from the sparkling dialogue, to the excellent character development, to the smartly plotted narrative that keeps you coming back for more – while the show’s absurdist tone works even better in a period setting like the late 1970s. Creator Noah Hawley is in high demand these days, and for good reason, because he’s once again crafted a funny, engaging and richly developed crime saga that works both as a prequel to the previous season as well as its own standalone story.

EXTRAS: The three-disc set includes a 44-minute featurette on making the season, interviews with Patrick Wilson and Keith Carradine about the Lou Solverson character, and a look at the fictional book, “The History of True Crime in the Midwest,” that appears in the penultimate episode.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Spotlight”

WHAT: In 2001, Boston Globe editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) assigned the newspaper’s Spotlight team – a four-man group of investigative journalists led by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) – to follow up on a story about a local priest accused of child molestation, only to uncover a massive scandal within the Boston archdiocese.

WHY: Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” may be one of the most low-key awards contenders in quite some time, relying on top-notch acting and writing to recount the fascinating true story that changed the way we looked at the Catholic Church forever. It’s just a really well-made movie, and the best one about investigative journalism since “All the President’s Men,” which creates suspense from the seemingly boring daily grind of searching through documents and chasing down leads. Every single actor plays their part and plays it extremely well, working together as an ensemble to serve the story instead of a particular character. The same goes for McCarthy and Josh Singer’s disciplined script, which avoids the allure of sensationalizing events or being exploitative. “Spotlight” lets the story speak for itself, and though it’s one of great importance, the film is first and foremost a celebration of the journalistic process that made it possible for the courage of a few to be heard by the entire world.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a six-minute roundtable discussion with the real-life Spotlight team, as well as a pair of featurettes on the film and the state of journalism.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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Bullz-Eye’s 2015 TV Power Rankings

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It’s another clean sweep for cable and streaming outlets for our annual list of the best shows on television. Netflix alone has four shows on our list, despite “House of Cards” dropping off. With so many outlets battling to create original content, the old TV networks just can’t compete when it comes to producing the best of the best.

Fortunately, in today’s world, if you’ve been missing out on some of the best shows, you can always find a way to binge watch and catch up.

We’ve kept the spoilers to a minimum, but you might want to skip over some of the write-ups if you’re behind on a particular series, as we naturally refer to recent events.

1. “The Walking Dead”

After the gruesome confrontation with the Terminus cannibals, Rick and the gang were tired and ragged without an obvious destination, so the introduction of the Alexandria safe zone offered an interesting twist to the story. Here the group suddenly found some much-needed normalcy in terms of their surroundings, while it was just a matter of time before the awkward interaction between Rick’s battle-tested crew and the clueless and sheltered inhabitants of Alexandria would lead to real conflicts. This year offered some interesting character developments as they got a much-needed though temporary reprieve from the daily battles with the walkers. “The Walking Dead” seems to get more interesting each year as the writers explore how humans deal with a post-apocalyptic world both on an individual and tribal level, so it remains our choice as the best show on television for 2015.

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Bullz-Eye’s 2014 TV Power Rankings

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With “Breaking Bad” wrapping up after five brilliant seasons, the top spot in our annual TV power rankings has finally opened up for the rest of the field. But AMC gets the nod for the best television show again this year as “The Walking Dead” edges out HBO’s “True Detective” on our list.

The list is dominated again by cable TV dramas, which seem to have surpassed movies in popularity. Streaming and binge watching have contributed to this trend, but it all starts with the quality of the programming. You’ll find some of the best writing, directing and acting talent on television these days, and often the quality of the storytelling surpasses the best that a film industry obsessed with blockbusters, superheroes and sequels can muster.

We’ve kept the spoilers to a minimum, but you might want to skip over some of the write-ups if you’re behind on a particular series, as we naturally refer to recent events.

1. “The Walking Dead”

Some fans have complained about the deliberate pace of this show when the gang sought temporary refuge at the farm and prison, but the tension built during these lulls always led to a bigger payoff when all hell inevitably broke loose. In the current fifth season, that payoff came quickly with jarring episodes that kicked off with the battle at Terminus and the confrontation with the hunters. The end of the world offers countless opportunities to explore how survivors might deal with a zombie apocalypse, and the writers have done a great job telling this story over the first five seasons. It’s currently the best and most consistent show on television.

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2. “True Detective”

This was by far the most intriguing and talked about show of 2014, featuring epic performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It also didn’t hurt to have sexy and provocative turns by beautiful actresses such as Alexandra Daddario, Lili Simmons and Michelle Monaghan. The dark tone was set in part through the use of flashbacks to a 1995 serial killer investigation framed in the context of interviews with the two primary detectives, with McConaughey’s intense Rust Cohle looking and acting like a burned out alcoholic as he told his part of the story. Yet after so much tension and anticipation was built up through the season, the ending was surprisingly predictable in some ways and incomprehensible in others. Still, the letdown at the end didn’t diminish the creepy and fascinating ride along the way.

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3. “Game of Thrones”

This show pretty much has everything, including great action, intrigue, sex and dragons. Our only quibble is the sheer number of characters and storylines, leaving less screen time for favorite characters like Tyrion and Arya. Bran’s character, for example, went from fascinating to boring pretty quickly. All the supernatural stuff surrounding his character will no doubt be important in the long run, but the road to wherever he’s going has been a snoozer of late. Fortunately, there are reports we won’t be seeing him in the upcoming Season Five, though we’ll get a heavy dose of Cersei instead.

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6 Things Key and Peele Want You to Know About “Key & Peele”

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“MADtv” alums turned latter day sketch comedy saviors Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have sneaked up on the American consciousness in the last few years, but it’s a good kind of sneak. Both sons of African-American fathers and white mothers, they haven’t exactly hid from their mixed-race heritage, mining a good percentage of their cheerfully subversive humor from the ethnic codes and conundrums that still dominate so much of American life.

To those who might try to (lamely) argue that race is no longer a factor in Barack Obama’s America, they give us Peele’s brilliant impression of President Obama alongside Key as Luther, the politician’s “anger translator.” It falls on the eternally stressed out Luther to put the leader’s thoughts into the plain black English many of us wish he could use, and the rest know would have ended his career instantly. To those of us who might feel shy about noting that some African-American names can be a bit more imaginative and polysyllabic than Caucasian monikers, they’ve given us East West College Bowl roll calls dominated by names that sound like they were collaborations between George Clinton and Dr. Seuss. (Peele has acknowledged the collaboration of a certain “Mr. Weed” in the writing of these pieces.)

We were lucky enough to encounter the witty pair who, unlike some other famous comedy teams, actually appear to enjoy one another’s company, at Comic-Con. Flanked by director Peter Atencio, they were there, of course, to promote the return of their Peabody-winning Comedy Central show. While they apparently couldn’t say much about a possible upcoming project with Judd Apatow, they were able to discuss their already aired and rather brilliant comedy relief-turn on FX’s Emmy-winning “Fargo,” as well as an animated project.

1. Regarding the point of the President Obama/Luther the Anger Translator sketches (which received a positive review from no less than the eternally composed POTUS himself).

Key: The most important thing to us has always been, “Let’s try, for comedic effect, to express what we think this president is thinking.” If the confluence of events had been different and he’d been a different president of a different race, we still think the comedic concept’s sound. So, we still would have done it. We picked Obama because we figured, “Here’s a sketch only we can do” and it helps with job security.

Peele: I think maybe the first one [had more raw anger in it]… There was a little element, at the beginning – there was all this shit that wasn’t getting said. There was some wish-fulfillment. It felt like nobody was defending [Obama] on the birther issue definitively enough.

Key: There was the birther issue, and the other trigger was Senator Joe Wilson screaming in the [Senate] chamber, “You lie!” That’s never happened to a president before; so, why would that happen to this president?

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