Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why I love FARGO (well, one of the reasons)

Exposition is a bitch!

Like all screenwriters I consider it a necessary evil. You need to provide backstory; you need to define characters for the audience. But it’s generally uninteresting and often stops the action rather than forward it.

And yet it’s crucial. The audience needs that information. Too little exposition and the audience is confused. Too much exposition and the audience is logging onto Netflix.

What’s a writer to do?

I generally try to dole exposition out in dribs and drabs. And if I can couch it in jokes that’s the “little bit of sugar that makes the medicine go down.”

Characters’ behavior can be a big clue. Their look, voice, speech patterns, wardrobe, attitudes, and decisions all contribute to building a profile without someone having to say: “You’re a loser, schemer, with a limited education, poor self esteem, a modest income, shitty dresser, youth slipping away, and you have jealousy issues.”

Still it’s very hard to do that artfully.

Which brings me to last week’s episode of FARGO.

They did something that just blew me away. They presented an incredibly novel way to re-introduce all of their characters.

With FARGO alum Billy Bob Thornton doing the narration, he recited the introduction to the orchestra segment from Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF. Each character (or animal) was represented by a single instrument, and on the screen you saw the FARGO character who best represented that animal. So Nikki was the conniving cat, Ray the dumb duck, etc. In four minutes you absolutely knew who each character was without any of them saying so much as a word. Visually and stylistically it was eye (and ear) popping.

That, to me, is ingenious storytelling.

The episode itself was excellent too with the added treat that PETER AND THE WOLF provided the soundtrack throughout. There are I’m sure other parallels to PETER AND THE WOLF, both in the basic story and the fact that Russian characters play a part.

Great writers always look for different ways to tell stories, convey information, capture an audience’s imagination. This is truly a golden age of television drama. Shows like FARGO raise the bar. And inspire old seasoned vets like me, even after all these years. Talk about hitting the right note.


Nick Alexander said...

Watched the premiere episode after buying it on a whim.

Instant buyer's remorse.

Nobody to care for; nobody to identify with; no storyline that is worth going down the rabbithole for. Great acting, great direction, for... what exactly?

My life is too busy to invest in something like this.

Jim S said...

Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad do something very interesting. They start shows with a scene that exists in and of itself. Then the rest of the episode or even season will explain how that scene fits into the overall picture.

As a viewer you get really curious and when the pieces fall into place, you say "of course."

Man, it's fun to watch really smart TV.

Bill said...

That music bit made we wish I'd seen FARGO now!. I wouldn't know how to do exposition but I might catch when it's done poorly: RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY's Leo McKern exclaiming "Why it's Nick, our son who moved to America and is now a professor at university, on the telephone!" Or Linda Belcher's "Oooh, I can't believe we were invited to Chuck and Linda's pool party!"
The closest comparison I can think of for the FARGO music-use might be the "lower intestine tuba" on CANNON whenever Conrad was introduced.

Malaspina said...

Fargo,The Americans and Better Call Saul are must watch TV.I kinda wish movies could have this level of writing.

Mike said...

A leitmotif.
As in Wagner, Once Upon a Time in the West, James Bond, Star Wars, Doctor Who.

Cat said...

Fargo season two was one of the best things I've ever seen on TV.

DBenson said...

Eons ago, the Smothers Brothers show did a tribute to old movie cliches. Tom Smothers kept saying, "Why are you telling all this to me, a perfect stranger?"

That seems to be a favorite on TV "origin" episodes: some newcomer gets a guided tour of the cast and the premise ("So you're starting over after a bad relationship, eh? Here's your desk, between the comic slut and the sarcastic old guy always on the phone to his wife. Hope you don't might sharing with the attractive member of the opposite sex you've already gotten off on the wrong foot with.")

julian said...

perhaps it's because of being from roughly the same meridian as Fargo, but i was distinctly not charmed by the quaintly accented film. now i'm gonna give the tv series a try.

i am watching S2 of Star Trek TNG, and it is brutally breaking the exposition rules at almost every step. and they have spaceships and stuff to work with! i'm guessing the show got better when the budget &/or technology got better.

YEKIMI said...

Great. Now EVERY show will be doing it that way! Only they'll pick a song....like "Run, Joey, Run" to do introductions/explanations to.

John Nixon said...

Yes, what you said...Fargo is a great show! The previous week they kept coming back to short animation clips from the book that Grandpa with the unknown past had written while we learned about his background. I saw something yesterday that said Jim Gaffigan will be joining the cast...can't wait!
The only 2 shows out of the hundred-some-odd available shows and channels I get on our cable subscription that I can't wait to see each week are Fargo and Gotham. Oh, and David Feherty's interview show on the Golf Channel. I think that Gotham is also an outstanding show that a lot of talent and effort goes into.

Joel Strewth said...

Hiya Ken. Long time reader, first time commenter. I have sort of a Friday Question for you, don't know if you want to use this as a separate post or anything: have you ever watched the failed Fargo pilot from the '90s with Edie Falco? I watched it a couple weeks ago (it's on YouTube) after viewing the L.A. episode of the current Fargo, and I have to say, even though some people probably felt it didn't get a fair shake, I really, really don't think it would've worked as a series. Maybe you could give a little insight on why most movies don't work in this format (with some exceptions, of course).

Anyway, love your blog, and keep up the good work!

VP81955 said...

Someday I hope sitcoms, especially multi-cams, elicit this sort of reaction. They once did.

cityslkrz said...

Just watched it today, and thought the same thing. Brilliant.

Thomas Mossman said...

The Next Generation is generally thought to have come into its own in Season Three; some have suggested that the reduced influence of Gene Roddenberry in that year may have positively affected the show's quality.

Stoney said...

I'm waiting for The Zombies' "She's Not There" to play when Gloria's thing with automatic doors is explained. Also hoping it doesn't come off like something out of "The Sixth Sense". Gotta have faith that Noah Hawley has something original up his sleeve!

Ewen McGregor needs to make some shelf space for the Emmy he'll be getting!

David Thewlis' character raises the bar on creepiness!

estiv said...

I recently watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and for all its good points, christ almighty was it exposition-bound. If the characters explaining themselves wasn't too much (it was), there was also a voice-over narrator telling us what had happened, how the characters felt about what had happened, and what they wanted to happen next. I guess I'll keep watching his newer films, even if it's nine years late as in this case, but he doesn't make it easy.