TV Club

Best TV shows 2014: Fargo was better than True Detective.

Entry 2: True Detective got the buzz, but Fargo was way better.

Allison Tolman in Fargo, left, and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective.

Allison Tolman in Fargo, left, and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective.

Photo illustration by Slate. Fargo photo by Chris Large/FX; True Detective photo by Jim Bridges

Dearest telephiles,

When we convened this time last year, the TV-watching world was still nursing its crystal-meth hangover and trying to figure out what came next after Breaking Bad. The answer: a lot of everything, at least as far as my top 10 list is concerned (see also the longer, blabbier version):

1. Transparent
2. The Americans
3. The Good Wife
4. Orange Is the New Black
5. Fargo
6. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

7. Broad City
8. Louie
9. High Maintenance
10. Silicon Valley

I’ve got broadcast, cable, and streaming; scripted and reality-based; comedies and dramedies; comedies with dramatic elements and dramatic shows that consider themselves, at least for awards purposes, comedies. Amid a generally crappy 2014 in world news, maybe we needed a laugh, even if it was often accompanied by tears. There are only three out-and-out dramas—The Americans, The Good Wife, and Fargo—after years of TV history that were critically dominated by them.

Naturally, this means I’m going to start with drama.

Willa, I know we disagreed about Fargo, and that may come down to how we classify it. In your first post, you include it, along with True Detective, under the umbrella of “antihero shows.” I don’t think it was that at all. As I wrote earlier this year, what was refreshing about Fargo was how, unlike True Detective, it was a departure from the antihero genre. Lorne Malvo isn’t an antihero; he’s a Mephistophelian villain, and Lester Nygaard his contemptible, ear-flapped Faust. (Lester, maybe, is closer to the antihero mold, but Fargo is told mainly from outside his perspective. Contrast that with the centrality of Walter White on Breaking Bad or Tony Soprano on The Sopranos.)

The relationship between those two—Malvo’s urging Lester to get in touch with his red-in-tooth inner ape—was the most direct repudiation of the Walter “I Was Alive” White self-actualization-through-violence philosophy that TV gave us this year. And against them Fargo sets actual heroes: not superheroes, but a flawed community of decent folks who in the end have to defeat the menace by working together. Even a well-meaning dim bulb like Bill Oswalt has his part to play.

There is the argument that Fargo, in its finale, reverted to macho type, by having Gus rather than Molly Solverson kill Malvo. But I’d say that argument only works if you accept Malvo’s definition of “winning.” I don’t think Fargo does. When Gus shoots Malvo, he’s frightened, shaking; he’s not getting his cojones back so much as doing something unpleasant and out of his nature. I do think the finale lost the thread by not giving Molly more to do, but she won by (true to her surname) solving the crime and triumphing within the law. (I’m still not sure how and why Gus wasn’t investigated for shooting Malvo in cold blood, but it looks like that homicide came under the jurisdiction of TV Law.) I’m not sure that having her win on the kind of terms that Nietzschean alpha dogs like Malvo have always set would have been a victory at all.  

True Detective, on the other hand, was all alpha, all antihero, all the time. Remember True Detective? For the first two months of the year, it seemed like all that the TV world could talk about, partly because of its mystery, partly because it seemed to fit the Heisenberg-shaped hole in the culture. But while it had fantastic elements—the two central performances, Cary Fukunaga’s directing—Rust Cohle’s philosophical stemwinders had me making Alicia Florrick’s talky-talky hand gesture to myself, and the show seemed to resist considering anyone but Marty and Rust a whole person. Its women were drawn badly, but that was also true for its Bible-thumping holy rollers, its rural hard-luck cases, and ultimately its killer, a Southern Gothic freak show living with his half sister in what looked like an outtake from The Heart, She Holler. I loved the series a lot in the moment—it’s high on my best-episodes-of-2014 list, about which more later—but looking back on the season, as a whole, it feels like a swamp fever that’s passed.

I’d rather take Fargo, which started from the assumption of value in its characters, to True Detective, which—its last-minute swerve toward optimism notwithstanding—strained to spy scraps of decency in humanity like pinpoints of light in the night sky.

But Fargo itself is only No. 5 on my list for the year. True Detective vs. Fargo was the debate the TV world was conditioned to have, but it wasn’t the main event, in a year that showed off so much else of what the medium was capable of.

FX vs. HBO? The more interesting contrast this year was Netflix vs. Amazon. Last year Orange Is the New Black announced Netflix’s ambition, and Season 2 held up strong, becoming a kind of jail-yard Game of Thrones, a power study with Litchfield’s racial cliques in place of the houses of Westeros. But Transparent simply operated on a level beyond anything else on TV (or on your laptop): a beautiful, messy, culturally specific story of family and identity with an unfiltered artistic voice. It recalled some of the best family series—Six Feet Under, the Zwick-Herskovitz dramas, PBS’ American Family—a genre that still has a hard time finding a place, however many dozens of cable channels we have now. (That idea of familial love, how it’s indispensible yet leaves you vulnerable, was also a theme of the fantastic second season of The Americans, which until Transparent dropped I thought would be a shoo-in for No. 1 on my list.)

If there’s a common thread in a lot of the great TV of 2014, it’s that element of productive messiness. You saw it more than ever in the fourth season of Louie, which was not the show’s best—in its multiple-angle takes on relationships it was alternately transcendent and embarrassing—but which lingered with me more than most shows this year. It was also there in The Leftovers—confounding, moving, boring, beautiful—which is not on my best list but is probably No. 1 on my list of Shows I’ve Most Second-Guessed Leaving Off My List.

And it’s in the last show that I’ll talk about for now, one that’s also on Willa’s list, that delicious, bite-sized, legal-in-Colorado confection High Maintenance, now streaming on Vimeo. (Between it, Broad City, and Louie’s “In the Woods” episode, this was a banner year for weed on TV.) This anthology comedy, about a Brooklyn pot dealer (Ben Sinclair) and his clients, is small TV in an era of maximalism. Each episode is only the length it needs to be, whether seven minutes or 17, like the story segments in Louie (which gets a shout-out in one of this year’s episodes). It is soda-straw specific in its cultural scope.

And it produced only five episodes this year, which you could polish off in one sitting without bathroom breaks. In an era of Too Much TV, when your DVR acquires a week’s worth of TV on Sunday night and Netflix delivers full seasons of TV by the pallet-load, I’ll take that as a plus. What’s true of pot today (so I’m told) is true of television now: It’s much more potent than it used to be. Sometimes a little hit is all you need.

Returning to my TiVo backlog,