When True Detective and Fargo both premiered in early 2014, they shared many similarities: they were both “prestige anthologies,” revolving around weird, dark crime stories, created and written by novelists (Nic Pizzolatto, Noah Hawley), both starring Oscar-winning Southerners (Matthew McConaughey, Billy Bob Thornton). Detective ended up getting all the buzz, while Fargo got all the Emmys and Golden Globes.
When both shows returned for a second season this year, one turned out to be better-assembled than the other. People were quite disappointed with season two of Detective, as viewers found the story to be both monotonous and pretentious. Meanwhile, the second season of Fargo had audiences and critics saying it was better than the first (and in the same league as the 1996 Coen brothers movie that jump-started this whole thing). Hawley has said that he wanted to make sure his show was perfect since he believed he was making a movie. As the show ended its second season last night, let’s list the several things Fargo did right that Detective unfortunately did wrong.
In both their respective first seasons, every episode of Detective and Fargo were written solely by its showrunner. However, although Pizzolatto had fellow novelist Scott Lasser share writing credit on a couple of episodes, the rest of the season was still Pizzolatto’s show. As for Hawley, he assembled a crew of seasoned TV writers, including Steve Blackman (Private Practice) and Bob De Laurentiis (Providence). Being a veteran TV writer himself, Hawley must’ve realized that if he wanted to do a sophomore season that was just as good — if not better — than the first, he couldn’t do it all alone.
As this season of Fargo quantum-leaped back to 1979, replaying the hellish crime spree that defined the career of then-Minnesota cop Lou Solverson (played by Keith Carradine last season and Patrick Wilson this season), this season had everything: a bevy of homicides, a turf war, a crime family dismantling Greek tragedy-style, an on-the-run couple, Ronald Reagan – hell, even aliens! And I could pretty much tell you exactly how everything went down. Don’t even ask me about the specifics of Detective this season, with its trio of tormented California cops (played by Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch) chasing down murder suspects and uncovering a conspiracy, while a gangster (Vince Vaughn) aching to go legit, finds he’s no match for corrupt government officials and shady, sinister businessmen. It was a cluttered mess that, to quote Matt Zoller Seitz, felt like “a first or maybe second draft rather than a polished final product.’
Since its first season, Detective has had a problem coming up with decent female characters who weren’t hateful harpies or straight-up sex objects. Even this past season’s main heroine, McAdams’ perpetually bitter Antigone Bezzerides (without question, the worst TV character name this year), had to get dolled up and go undercover in order to infiltrate a David Lynch-worthy orgy. Fargo didn’t have this problem. The show had its share of complicated, dangerous-but-sympathetic ladies: Jean Smart’s ruthless yet level-headed big momma Floyd Gerhardt; Kirsten Dunst’s somewhat unhinged but always optimistic Peggy Blumquist; Cristin Milioti’s cancer-stricken but still proud Betsy Solverson; and Rachel Keller’s doomed femme fatale Simone Gerhardt. Thanks to these characters (and the amazing work done by the actresses who inhabited these roles), the women of Fargo were often more fascinating than the men.
By far, the worst-developed character on Detective this season had to be Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh, a cop who had seen some hellish action in Afghanistan. He’s also a closeted gay man so determined to go/be straight, that he jumps at the chance to marry his on-again/off-again girlfriend when she tells him she’s pregnant. All through the season, it was hard to tell if it was his PTSD or his inner struggle with his sexuality that made him look like such an intense, emotionally confused fella. (It didn’t help that Kitsch played him like he was constipated all the time.) Fargo also had war heroes who were dealing with the aftereffects in their own ways. Some of my favorite moments from the series had Vietnam vet Solverson and his WWII-serving father-in-law Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) recalling all the good and bad times they experienced during wartime, wondering if they brought all that carnage home with them. There was also Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon), the Gerhardt’s Native American henchman and decorated Vietnam soldier who basically reaches his breaking point, inflicting his own carnage through the season’s final episodes.
Shout-out goes to Hawley and music supervisor Maggie Phillips for assembling many of the 1970s-era deep cuts that played all through the season. The score covered the gamut, from the decade’s biggest arena-rock stars (Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac) to little-known players (Billy Thorpe, Cymande). It’s like the world’s coolest classic rock station is always on while the show is in progress — rather than the throat-slitting melodies performed by Lera Lynn, the guitar-strumming singer who played many a bleak, depressing tune to accompany Farrell and Vaughn’s intense bar chats.
Craig D. Lindsey is a North Carolina-based TV and film critic. Follow him on Twitter: @unclecrizzle