True Detective or Fargo: Which weird miniseries was better?
Matthew McConaughey of True Detective; Allison Tolman of Fargo
Matthew McConaughey of True Detective; Allison Tolman of Fargo

True Detective or Fargo: Which weird miniseries was better?

Two of our writers argue it out

Todd VanDerWerff: On its surface, having an argument about whether True Detective or Fargo was “better,” particularly when both of us think both series are, at the very least, quite good, seems the most foolish sort of clickbait. Yes, the two shows have a lot in common: They’re both deeply strange, single-season forays into the crime genre that make the most of their miniseries format. They both have a couple of movie stars who were only able to commit because of the series’ “one and done” natures. They’ve both prompted any number of critical raves and think pieces. Both had somewhat disappointing finales. And neither has been officially renewed for a second season just yet, perhaps because the showrunners (Nic Pizzolatto and Noah Hawley, respectively) are feeling the sheer difficulty of coming up with a brand-new story and set of characters. (But, c’mon. We’re going to get more of both.)

However, going beyond the question of which is “better” can lead to some interesting territory in the realm of critical approach. I think you’d agree with me, Sonia, that this new made-to-order, miniseries-per-season format of television (which was properly invented, we should say, by Ryan Murphy, of all people, with American Horror Story) is one of the most exciting things to happen to the medium in years. Where we differ is in how we believe these two stories handled this exciting new format. For me, True Detective frequently got bogged down in the pitfalls of TV I’d already seen time and time again, while Fargo—even at its worst—was engaged in an active critique of the male antihero genre.

I know you’re Team True Detective, and since that show debuted earlier, I want you to make the best possible case you can for its virtues (which are legion) before I prove you wrong with science.

Sonia Saraiya: Okay, before I go any further, I just want to say this: These series are nearly identical. One of the reasons it’s interesting to compare the two is because they’re so parallel. They are both time-jumping stories about one weird case that wouldn’t quite go away. They are both primarily about interrogating masculinity, albeit from different angles. They’re both set in rich, near-pastoral landscapes—rural Louisiana and rural Minnesota and North Dakota. They both hinge on the flawed souls of their heroes, and furthermore, they do so by rattling around the idea of destiny, fate, good, and evil in their lush landscapes, where time is a flat circle and the fox and the cabbage go over the river together. And in both, the good guys win, though they nearly lose themselves in the process.

The main difference between the two is that I sobbed through a lot of True Detective, and Fargo mostly elicited a yawn.

It’s not that I found Fargo bad, though I consistently found it lacking in a certain magic. It is fine. It has some great music, some interesting cinematography, and a cute central couple on which to peg all our hopes and dreams. But its tone never clicked for me, and I found myself deeply uninterested in the tale of Lester Nygaard and Lorne Malvo (though I would watch Allison Tolman’s character, Molly Solverson, just do things for the rest of my life). And though the story isn’t wholly about Martin Freeman’s Lester and Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne, it did seem like I had to care about their thing in order to care about the rest of the miniseries.

And what’s the difference between Lester Nygaard and Lorne Malvo when compared to Rust Cohle and Marty Hart? Both pairs of men are intertwined by history and crime, and pretend to be good men and bad men as they see fit. I admit that it’s Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Rust Cohle that first hooked me on True Detective—it’s the role of a lifetime. Everything else aside, I don’t think we’ll ever see him that good again.

But more than that, it was the sense that these were two men desperately trying to do good and were thwarted time and again by forces of horror and their own flawed natures. I think of myself as being hypersensitive to anything that seems overly earnest or treacly—which is why, perhaps, True Detective’s self-seriousness is such a feat. It made me care about the battle between light and dark, and it made me think about my own morality in a world that often feels hopelessly dark and violent.

There are two personal tics in True Detective’s favor for me as well. One: I’m very fond of Romantic literature—not the kind you buy in supermarkets, but the kind done by poets and authors in the early 1800s. Pulp fiction and noir borrow a lot from that genre—specifically, the broad emotional strokes that shape the story.

Two, I’m from the South. I grew up in swampy Florida, which looks awfully similar to swampy Louisiana. And though the names are different, that terror at being lost in the mangroves, never to be recovered, struck me in the marrow of my bones, time and time again. Even just the sweeping looks at the sun low on the horizon, or the bugs swarming out of the grass in the evening, feel terribly familiar. Todd, I believe you’re going to say something about South Dakota now.

TV: Man, I really am that predictable, huh?

I will freely admit that Fargo had a couple of big checks in my column as well. One is, as you mentioned, geography. While the Minnesota of Fargo is somewhat different from the South Dakota of my youth, it’s not that much different, and the series’ Calgary shooting locations remind me so much of the snow-swept landscapes of my youth. But it was also helped by the fact that I love Coen brothers films beyond all measure, and once it settled into its groove, Fargo became a show as much about trying to figure out how Hawley had channeled the sensibility of the directors through his own point of view. If True Detective speaks the language of Romantic literature, then Fargo speaks the language of ’80s and ’90s American independent film. And while I like both, I lean more toward the latter.

But I think my preference for Fargo goes beyond the ways in which I was predisposed to like it. You mention Allison Tolman, and, to me, she gave the TV performance of the year, slowly grabbing hold of the story and dragging it toward her, even though she was outflanked by two movie stars. It was Tolman, ultimately, that made me so invested in this show, whereas True Detective was something I politely appreciated, but didn’t think about after it was over. You mention that for you, True Detective was about men trying to do good and struggling far too often with what that even meant. Well, for me, Fargo was about how hard it can be to do good in a system that’s often weighed against you. The series stacks the deck against Molly over and over again, and she keeps throwing herself at the door, hoping to break through. True Detective treats its central duo as larger than life, ultra-masculine heroes, characters who are meant to be fascinating by the very dint of their existence. Molly is meant to be fascinating, because she’s this ultra-normal person who gets dragged into an ultra-abnormal circumstance but clings as hard as she can to her very basic decency.

But I need to come back to the idea of the male antihero drama, which both of these shows seem to be in conversation with. The biggest controversy dogging both series was the idea that they were somehow mired in the TV conversations of the past, that both were uninterested in anything beyond the same old stories of men behaving badly. And I’ll admit that I frequently felt those concerns about True Detective, which managed to stay on the right side of the “depicting a misogynistic world is not actually misogyny” line. But it made less sense to me with Fargo, where it became obvious as the season went along that Lester was not meant to be celebrated but was meant to undercut so many of the bullshit, hyper-masculine lies the male antihero genre has fed us since its inception. The moment when Lester kills his nagging wife (a big archetype in the genre) in the pilot turned off a lot of people, but it thrilled me. This was not because I thought she deserved to die—far from it. It was because, as my friend puts it, the show gets you to expect it to happen because of the tropes of the genre, then forces you to think about what that would actually mean, how it would actually feel to commit that murder or have your husband suddenly, savagely beat you to death with a hammer.

Neither of these shows is going to win the female character Olympics, but Fargo, by virtue of having one of the best female characters of the year at its center, ultimately won me over, because it didn’t feel like riffs on the same story I’d heard a million times before. Now, Sonia, I made you review a whole season of Ray Donovan. Why aren’t you tired of male antihero dramas with little time for women in their stories already?

SS: Ouch! Excuse me while I burnish my feminist credentials; they appear to be tarnished. Although I also loved Tolman in Fargo, True Detective’s lack of developed female characters didn’t really disturb me. Perhaps I was reading something into it, but to my mind, the entire show was about the relationship between these two men—and their self-absorption in their particular performances of masculinity, to the exclusion of all else. Of course Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie is the archetypal mother-turned-whore; of course Lili Simmons’ Beth is the maiden-turned-whore. These are men trying to save the world from what they see as the bad guys, but in the process, they’re realizing that the reason they get it is because they are the bad guys. They’re the problem; they’re the reason that men do this to women. The story of True Detective offers them—and all of us sinners—redemption. It’s possible Rust and Marty are more bad than good, but knowing their own flaws makes them a lot better at tracking down evil and stamping it out. They almost die in the process—because they’re just shy of making the world a better place by killing themselves.

It is entirely possible that my socially just reading of this series is pure optimism—that instead, it is just bros bro-ing bro-ishly, with bro-shades and bro-hats. But it worked for me, on a deeper level than most television does. I found myself struggling for my own soul alongside Rust and Marty, because though I’m not male, I’m a hypocrite and a cheat, like the rest of us.

I had a hard time, meanwhile, shaking the sense that Fargo was derivative of a thousand things I’d seen before. In part, that’s because it is explicitly derivative—it comes from the Coen brothers film, which I also love. My loyalty to that film warred with Noah Hawley’s vision, which though honest to the source material seemed also to steal the best parts of it to create something very similar. I don’t think I got anything out of Fargo the show that I didn’t get out of Fargo the film, except for Allison Tolman and Key and Peele lying on the floor of a filing room. It had a lot of the same thematic resonance for me. Great thematic resonance, don’t get me wrong—and that fourth episode, “Eating The Blame,” has a moment that sent chills down my spine, because it married the show’s vision with the film’s.

But I just didn’t care that much about the show—I trailed off during this season, and only caught up in preparation for the finale, but I didn’t find myself all that passionate about an ending I could see coming from a mile away. Perhaps, the mechanics of the happy ending would be unexpected, the show was made in the image of Fargo, so it had to be Fargo.

I also felt that Fargo was as much making fun of its characters and their tragedy as it was invested in it. That’s a very Coen brothers-type of twist, but it was hard to watch week after week—it’s hard to watch in just one film sometimes. I freely admit that those two directors’ body of work has made me run the entire possible gamut of emotions, from disgusted to tickled to bored to deeply moved. I don’t always get things. And I think I just didn’t get Fargo’s particular brand of sly horror; I couldn’t figure out what any of it meant, and I’m not convinced it did mean anything, outside prettiness.

I’ll say this, though: Neither show is just a same-old version of a series where men behave badly. That denies both creators some of their fundamental vision, which is to add depth and empathy to the male experience. They’re both still shows about men, but I can live with that, if it creates such richness.

TV: Sure. I can go with that.

What I can’t go with is the idea that Fargo was making fun of its characters as much as it was invested in them. Yes, it was often a funny show, but after the first couple of episodes, it struck me as sincere, almost to a fault. (This, incidentally, is something I also liked about True Detective, which could tip over into self-seriousness, but at least it wasn’t drenched in archly detached irony.) The longer Fargo ran, the more it revealed that every character in its universe, no matter how incidental, had a point of view and importance to the story. The most self-evidently ridiculous character—Glenn Howerton’s weirdo Chumph—got by far the series’ most affecting death scene, and the character of Chazz Nygaard, a joke on smug self-certainty in the first few episodes, gains depth and shades when it’s revealed that only he seems capable of seeing the truth about his brother Lester. The show did that thing I love on TV, where you think you know a character, and then it’s revealed that you have no idea what you’re dealing with and never have.

What it ultimately comes down to for me is that True Detective, true to the fact that it comes from the pen of a novelist, felt like a novel for television in ways that struck me as both new and fascinating and as running away from many of the things I love about the medium. By so strenuously keeping us in the perspectives of Rust and Marty, Pizzolatto broke from the TV dogma that all but insists every single character on the medium’s best dramas be a fully formed human being. The supporting characters on True Detective might have been full-fledged human beings with their own points of view and perspectives on the case that consumed Rust and Marty, but the series wasn’t interested in those things. It was a show about storytelling, about the way that we try to center our lives around particular narratives of the things that happen to us, and while I appreciated that as an intellectual exercise, it never gripped me in the messy, complicated way Fargo did.

Fargo may not be taking as many chances with the form as True Detective, but it’s a lot more recognizable to me as TV, as a show that executes almost every beat of its story perfectly. Even its slightly disappointing finale is slightly disappointing to me in a very TV way. It’s possible that my preference for it is based on my inability to get past preconceptions of what the medium “should” be all about (which would be such a True Detective thing to do, come to think of it), but I couldn’t help but watch the HBO series and wonder about the world around Rust and Marty, instead of just what they thought about it. After the first few episodes, I knew these guys and the contours of their psyches, and I longed for something else, something more. Fargo may be a far more traditional TV creation, but it’s doing so in ways that validate the humanity of everybody within its confines, and that’s something I find increasingly welcome in an age when so many antihero shows (True Detective included) strike me as claustrophobic.

But what do I know? Did you feel trapped by Fargo?

SS: Absolutely. I think in your explanation of how Fargo spoke to you, you explained why it didn’t resonate for me. I’m down with humanity—but I’m not necessarily drawn to the traditional television structure. If anything, I’m impressed by that which breaks it. True Detective, more than Fargo or American Horror Story, got me excited about the anthology format for television. And in looking back on it, I think True Detective accomplished something unique for not just television, but narrative forms, in general—film, literature, and television, among other things. In eight parts, it totally seized the conversation in a way that Fargo hasn’t managed to. Popular acclaim is hardly the only measure of a show’s success. But True Detective struck a nerve for a lot of people—not just in content, as you mention, but in form. As you said earlier—Fargo the show borrows from Fargo the film’s sensibility for independent cinema. Meanwhile, True Detective is independent cinematic storytelling, on the small screen. It’s truer to the spirit of the Coen brothers than FX’s Fargo is—it pokes at nihilism and concludes for great meaning in a way that reminds me of No Country For Old Men or True Grit.

It’s possible that True Detective won’t age well for me—or for a whole generation. We’ll look back on the ’10s and see the miniseries as a huge mistake, a blip on our collective conscious. But I’m firmly in its camp, because it said something to me about the fundamental darkness and terror about being a person on a day-to-day basis. 

But hey, Fargo does that, too. Not as strongly, for me. But clearly, firmly, and well. Molly Solverson, compared to Lester Nygaard, is as much a dichotomy of light and dark as anything in True Detective. What’s sort of wonderful about both of these series is that their message is essentially identical: Do what you can to make the world slightly less shitty. Drop that glove, so that the one you lost can find its pair. Make your work the fundamental goodness of things. I think the reason we both identify with our particular favorites is because they spoke to us—but it’s wonderful that there are even two things that speak to us. We’re talking about two of the best.

As Rust tells Marty at the end of True Detective: “It’s just one story.”

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