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Reflecting on ‘Fargo’ and ‘Better Call Saul’
June 19, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 3 comments
 

Two of the best shows on TV wrap up their current seasons this week, Fargo on FX and Better Call Saul on AMC, and I’ve spent several weeks trying to figure out why my reactions toward them are so different.

They’re both dark dramas spiced with dark humor. They’re both driven by what happens when you knock over the first domino of evil and then get crushed under the ones that follow.

While they both can stretch credibility, they generally deliver impeccable writing and acting. When we talk about the platinum age of quality television, these are two shows that need to be in every conversation.

Yet all season my instinctive reaction to Fargo (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET), has differed sharply from my reaction to Better Call Saul (Monday, 10 p.m. ET).

Fargo, I can’t wait to see. Better Call Saul, I take a deep breath and settle in.  

That doesn’t mean I ever want to skip Better Call Saul. Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill (top), Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill, Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmantraut (left) and Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring are first-rate roles, and creator Vince Gilligan has skillfully crafted a story that can ultimately fold into Breaking Bad.

At the same time, I often find Better Call Saul hard to watch, for one simple reason.

There’s nobody to root for.   

I have a lot of affection for Ehrmantraut and, in contrast to many fans, I like Chuck McGill.

But it’s not their show. The show is Jimmy McGill and Kim, and I find nothing appealing about either one.

Jimmy McGill may whine about sibling abuse. I see no one to blame for Jimmy except Jimmy. He’s an amoral hustler who gets away with way more things on this show than you’d like to think any low-rent con man could get away with in life.

Maybe that’s one reason I don’t like him because too many con men do get away with too many things in real life.

In any case, lovable and tolerable con men have populated TV shows for years, because they con people who deserve it. While Jimmy takes down a few self-important buffoons, he is just as happy to screw innocent people whose only sin is trust.  

Kim doesn’t hustle with the same arrogance as Jimmy. But she enjoys the game. She also knows who he is and does nothing to stop him. She enables him, which makes her a hypocrite. If she’s doing it for love, or if she occasionally feels a little guilt, it’s never enough to make her sympathetic.

Now yes, I know Jimmy and Kim are drawn this way for a reason. They’re part of a larger dramatic picture that requires characters who have these flaws.

That’s why I watch. The larger picture is engaging.

But without any character that I want to win – only characters I want to lose – Better Call Saul can feel like a long hour.

Fargo has really bad guys, too. V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) and his crew, of course. Shea Whigham’s Sheriff Moe Dammick (right) needs to have his stuffed shirt deflated. The late Maurice LeFay (Scoot McNairy) was the kind of guy who, if someone was going to have a safe dropped on his head, was a good choice.

But Fargo also has people you want to succeed, or at least survive.

Brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy (played by Ewan McGregor) are, or were, flawed but essentially decent people. They only hurt themselves, or each other. It was Varga who poisoned them, as he did more literally with Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Then there’s Carrie Coon’s Gloria Burgle, in the classic Fargo role of the decent female law enforcement officer who seems to face an impenetrable wall of macho thugs.

Everyone who watches the show wants Gloria to make it through and take some bad guys down. Whether she will, who knows, because Fargo isn’t always sentimental or predictable, but the combination of the character and Coon’s superb performance is one reason I savor Fargo. 

There’s less consensus, I realize, on Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango. While she’s got a hard-core side, I like her, and not just because of that jacket.

For comparative purposes, Nikki has done far worse things than Kim Wexler. But Nikki’s always been exactly who she is, while Kim has tried to pass herself off as better than she is. In that matchup, give me Nikki.

It’s one of Fargo’s biggest tossups, I suspect, whether Nikki makes it to the finish line. The best hope probably lies in Gloria’s invitation that the two of them sit down for a piece of pie when it’s all over and Nikki’s response that she likes coconut cream. 

I want that to happen, though on Fargo it could take many different forms. I just don’t want them to take a road trip to Omaha and sit down at Jimmy’s Cinnabon.

 
 
 
 
 
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3 Comments
 
 
Bill DePalma
It's not so much about you being right or wrong, it is simply silly to compare these shows on the basis of how good You felt about one show's character compared to a completely different show. Meaningless
Jun 25, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
Bob516
David, did Breaking Bad feel like a long hour for you? I couldn't wait to see the next episode of Breaking Bad, but I wasn't rooting for Walt and Jesse, I was just fascinated with their characters, just as I am fascinated with Jimmy and Kim.
Jun 21, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
What about Fargo's Flying Saucers? Season 2 ended with 1. Season 3's flashback had another -but animated. Both appears at moment's of extreme violence & mass killing. Does it mean anything?
Jun 19, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
 
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Good news, TVWW readers: David’s new book from Doubleday, The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific is available on Amazon for $20. (Paperback will be available September 5th, here.)

Doubleday says: “Darwin had his theory of evolution, and David Bianculli has his. Bianculli's theory has to do with the concept of quality television: what it is and, crucially, how it got that way."

"The Platinum Age of Television is an effusive guidebook that plots the path from the 1950s’ Golden Age to today’s era of quality TV. For instance, animation evolved from Rocky and His Friends to South Park; variety shows moved from The Ed Sullivan Show to Saturday Night Live; and family sitcoms grew from I Love Lucy to Modern Family. A high point is the author’s interviews with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Matt Groening, Larry David, Amy Schumer and many others...Bianculli has written a highly readable history." —The Washington Post

 

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