The Minnesota mystery show is coming back with a different cast and a new plot – but it’s still the same show.
FX announced today that Executive Producer Noah Hawley’s comedy Fargo will return for a second season, but the show’s high-profile cast – Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Hanks, Martin “Bilbo” Freeman – won’t return to the frigid Calgary set. The next installment of the North Country true-crime tail inspired by the 1996 Coen brothers hit will follow different characters played by different actors. That makes the show a sort of network version of True Detective, which is losing McConaughey, Harrelson, and their gonzo chemistry, and begs a simple question: What makes a T.V. series a T.V. series?
Anyone who watched the first season of Fargo would have been tempted to say the show was about a violent drifter named Lorne Malvo pulling insurance salesman Lester Nygaard into his orbit while being tracked by fantastically-named police officers Molly Solverson and Gus Grimly. If the show can lose all of those characters and still exist, then clearly that’s not what it was about. Apparently, Fargo was actually about weak-willed Norwegian-Americans confronting malice when it unexpectedly arrives on their snowy doorsteps. That describes the movie and the show. Fargo isn’t so much a story as it is the title of a thematic collection of stories. Fargo is apparently more Prairie Home Companion than Coach.
The same can be said of True Detective, which is more about the hard-boiled aesthetic than about unraveling any particular plot. There have been plenty of casting rumors surrounding that show, but fundamentally fans understand what the second season will be about: Cosmic truths, sparse clues, and overwrought dialogue. Fundamentally, the wildly adult-themed show is borrowing a model from – of all places – public television. Masterpiece Theater debuted on PBS in 1971 and has since adapted a massive number of novels and plays to the small screen. Viewers tune in because they understand what Masterpiece does (frilly costume, palace intrigue, withering British ripostes) rather than because it tells any particular story.
Masterpiece Theater was actually something of a survivor of the heyday of what television scholars call “Anthology Series.” Back in the forties and fifties, many popular shows – The Mysterious Traveler, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, The Strange Dr. Weird – changed cast and plot episode to episode. Very few lingered on stories for a whole season, but the idea was essentially the same: Viewers tuned in because they had a basic idea of what the show’s producers did for a living. This is precisely why Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, which puts the same cast in different bizarre settings every season, has been so successfully. The show is a Ryan Murphy product in the same way True Detective is a Nicolas Pizzolatto product and Fargo is now a Noah Hawley product.
The popularization of this new anthology model is great news for audiences. The switch ‘em out in the offseason strategy (which really isn’t so different from the approach taken by trade-happy sports teams like the Brooklyn Nets) allows better actors to sign up for a series without overcommitting themselves, writers to move past failing plot lines, and audiences to get a little bit of resolution every year. Had executives been comfortable doing this a decade ago, no one would have had to watch 121 episodes to figure out what happened to the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815. The show could have moved on to a boat wreck or train crash.
The one thing that this new approach to television demands is that the audience trust show runners. If Fargo’s second season doesn’t live up to its first, it will be because of decision’s Hawley makes. That’s a lot to take on, but it’s good to see folks working in television take a risk. Now that Fargo is a brand rather than a story, FX needs to focus less on creating bankable characters and catchphrases and more on keeping the customer satisfied. As the customer, we’re fine with that.