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FARGO, TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, RECTIFY and the Construction of the American Small Town, Part II

Press Play By Spencer Short | Press Play August 6, 2014 at 1:26PM

In Part One of this essay, I was pretty tough on Fargo and True Detective, accusing them of an absence of imagination, and generosity, in their approach to small-town and rural life. Perhaps I should heed my own call for generosity, however.
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In Part One of this essay, I was pretty tough on Fargo and True Detective, accusing them of an absence of imagination, and generosity, in their approach to small-town and rural life. Perhaps I should heed my own call for generosity, however. Both Fargo and True Detective are, in the grand scheme of things (or, at least, relative to so much television that's come before), ambitious, stylish, well-made shows. In certain ways, they are perfectly wedded to their truncated mini-series form; small towns and miniseries provide and require just enough life to flesh out a narrative but not so much that they necessarily overflow with life, with randomness, imposing their messiness on an auteur's message. Rejecting for the most part Frederic Jameson's "thickening continuum" of geographical indistinguishability, both Fargo and True Detective rely on their locales to convey an iconoclasm and remoteness that makes possible the tragic events that transpire. This isolation is reinforced by the general absence of pop cultural signifiers—the television, film, or musical touchstones that have become so ubiquitous in contemporary television and film that they often go unnoticed. [1] Modern technology plays a diminished role, as well (even taking account of the fact that shows aren't precisely contemporary). Fargo's disgraced FBI agents Pepper and Budge work in an old-school, analog file room; the relevant "files" that True Detective's Hart and Cohle seek are said to be lost in post-hurricane flooding. Instead of GPS tracking there are French Connection-style stakeouts. In an age of cell phones, Fargo's Gus Grimly nonetheless communicates with his daughter on a walkie-talkie. The "murder board" at the Bemidji police station is a string figure of red yarn and local vernacular (one suspect is identified as the "deaf fella").

It's hard to tell if the shows ignore the march of culture and technology as an homage to the by-gone genres they recall (noir, pulp fiction) or whether those genres provide Hawley and Pizzolatto an opportunity to slip out of our networked and interconnected world for a moment, providing a bit of space and quiet to map out their ideas. Either way, it's hard not to identify a flattening at work. Still, it’s not as if Fargo or True Detective are the first shows to reduce small-town and rural life to one-dimensionality or to a trope. Indeed, twenty-five years before Frederic Jameson wrote his essay on the false, flat history of small towns and nostalgia films, the Andy Griffith Show was providing America with a weekly window into a "time gone by" via Mayberry, North Carolina. Though it was filmed in, and ostensibly took place in, the 1960s, Griffith himself has explained that the show consciously catered to a nostalgia for times past, cultivating an 1930s-ish atmosphere. This is the endless reservoir of our nostalgia. The Andy Griffith Show has been on the air (in some form) since it debuted on CBS in 1961, and audiences continue to watch it today out of nostalgia for a time that the show itself sought to escape via an even deeper nostalgia. 

The Andy Griffith Show was among the first of its kind. By 1971, CBS had seven rural-themed shows in its line-up, a glut of bumpkin-escapist fare so pervasive, so identified with cultural complacency, that Gil Scott Heron indicted it in his seminal spoken-word piece "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" ("Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so Goddamn relevant"). That year, as part of an attempt to appeal to a younger, more contemporary demographic, CBS initiated what became known as "the rural purge"—cancelling its entire line-up of rural shows, including Mayberry RFC, Green Acres, and (the year before) Petticoat Junction. As one actor joked, "It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it." [2] And just like that, the "noble rubes" and barnyard hijinks were gone. But only briefly. A popular (and political) uproar led to CBS’ attempt to placate critics a year later with The Waltons, which followed a decidedly noble family's travails in a hardscrabble 1930s Virginia.  Initially expected to fail—for both demographic and scheduling reasons—The Waltons stayed on the air for nearly a decade (a run extended by several television movies), and it peaked at Number 2 in the Nielsen ratings in 1973-74. Although it may have been intended to placate the fans of CBS's canceled shows, The Waltons also marked a departure from its predecessors, in part by being more overtly historical (it took place forty years before its air date) if still folksy, but also by foregoing broad characterizations and humor. (NBC would try to tap into a similar audience via the even more historical, more folksy themes of Little House on the Prairie in 1974.) That said, pre-Waltons cartoonishness would make a brief return with the Dukes of Hazzard in the late 1970s. And the comic conflict between rural unreason and urban sophistication (and exasperation) seen in Green Acres would be revisited, and revised, by Newhart (1982-1990). In other words, The Waltons didn't really supplant the shows it replaced. It simply added another trope to the mix. 

Together, these 1960s and 70s series have provided, and continue to provide, a template for the numerous rural and small-town shows that followed. For main characters and audiences alike, television's version of small-town America have frequently served as something more than a source of easy laughs. They suggest an escape from, or a corrective to, the misguided ambitions and increasing complexity of American life. There are variations within the tropes, of course, whether it involves shaking off the corrupting influence of New York corporate law (Ed), or a Manhattan transplant at the liminal edge of Alaska’s vast wilderness (Northern Exposure), or the Lake Wobegon-esque hermeticism of a town where everyone is strong, good-looking, and above-average (Gilmore Girls, Everwood, Dawson’s Creek). Northern Exposure debuted a short six months after Twin Peaks and though the two shows are marked by thematic similarities—an outsider arrives from out of town and is introduced to a cast of eccentric characters in a rustic Northwestern setting—Northern Exposure incorporated and civilized Twin Peaks’ rough edges, retrofitting its strangeness to familiar frameworks. [3]  Structurally, Northern Exposure was closer to Newhart, even if it seemed a little artier around the edges. [4] Despite their differences, the majority of these more modern rural and small-town series attack the fundamental premise of a show like Peyton Place—Jameson's "claustrophobia and anxiety," or the assumption that small towns are prisons one must escape—with aggressive eccentricity (Northern Exposure), geniality (Ed), and/or wit (Gilmore Girls). As enjoyable as these shows were, watching them again, all of the effort nonetheless suggests a touch of over-compensation.

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This article is related to: Spencer Short, Blogs, Television


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