On Tuesday, the FX network premiered their new series Fargo. The premise of the show revolves around a quiet, snowy Minnesota town that changes irrevocably when a violent stranger drifts into town, leaving a trail of chaos in his wake. Does this premise sound familiar? It should – it is based on the very popular 1996 Coen Brothers film of the same. While the series is not a direct adaptation or continuation of the film – meaning it will not follow Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson or the rest of the cast and characters of the film – it is more of a thematic sequel, in that it takes the theme, ideas, and settings of the film and gives them a modern update. It is a completely valid way to approach a television adaptation of a beloved film – in fact, there are many different types of television sequels, remakes, and updates that the show owes a debt to for setting a trend and proving that film to television transitions can be successes.
M*A*S*H was a sitcom remake of the popular 1970 film of the same name. Unlike Fargo, this sitcom was a direct remake of the film, following the exact same characters from the movie as they continued on new adventures. Though many of the film’s cast were replaced, the sitcom became even more beloved than the film, and was an unparalleled success, running for 11 seasons as well as producing a successful spin-off show, Trapper John, M.D. that itself enjoyed a healthy run. The series finale of the show was viewed by nearly 106 million viewers, an unbelievable feat by any standard, and remained the most-watched television broadcast in history until 2010, when that year’s Super Bowl edged it out by a hair. This was certainly a sitcom that left an indelible mark.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a different type of update. Based on the unsuccessful 1992 film of the same name, this show was a sequel to the film. After the events of the film, Buffy moves to a new town, transfers to a new school, and begins dealing with all sorts of new terrifying vampires, demons, and monsters. While the film was tepidly received, the series was a ground-breaking one that changed the landscape of television, and set trends that shows today still follow – for example, each season had one main villain, and the show’s serialized storytelling is employed by many shows today. Helmed by auteur Joss Whedon, the show was a stunningly unique blend of pathos, humor, horror, and action, and showed the ways that genre fiction can tell deeply moving stories. Not to mention the fact that the show featured a strong female heroine at its center. More than just a simple cult hit, the show has inspired legions of fans, spawned a television spinoff of its own (Angel), and even has scholarly works dedicated to studying its themes. Despite all of the supernatural, serio-comedic, or feminist shows that have been inspired in its wake, nothing comes close to matching the one and only slayer herself.
Parenthood, which is still on the air today, is a third type of film-to-television update: the “inspired by” series. This is exactly what Fargo is doing – using the original film as a thematic template and inspiration for the series, but not actually using any of the same characters or direct story lines. The Parenthood series has taken on a new family, the Bravermans, and explored the relationships between parents and children in a similar way the film did – with heart, sincerity, and some humor. This type of remake is all about recapturing the tone of the original, if not the actual names and faces.
This is what Fargo will attempt to do, capture the irony and black humor of the film with new characters and situations. By all accounts, it seems the show may have been successful – early reviews have been positive, and if Fargo is successful, who knows what the next film to get the television treatment will be?
Commentary by Alex Warheit