I'm guessing it happened around The Sopranos... or The Wire. It has something to do with HBO, that's for sure. It was around the time when people realised that TV could be truly interacted with as an art-form, rather than kept up with as something that staves off a sense of cosmic meaninglessness. People began stroking their pointy beards, or growing pointy beards that they could stroke and go "Mmmmm that's good television. Are you watching it?"
Since then, we've seen the likes of True Detective, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Orphan Black, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones all emerging as shows with an air of premium quality. Whether they're good or not, they spread through a sense of superiority and being a cut above the rest, which subsequently is getting harder and harder to do. Ironically now, "It's not just HBO, it's TV!"
I will always pinpoint a trend not when I notice multiple products of similar style, but when one product becomes a functional imitation of them. With the growing environment of TV as the medium for grown-ups and complex storytelling, do we have this imitation yet? Well, we have Fargo.
Fargo is likely the best of the recent TV adaptations of movies from the last twenty years (until someone makes a Southland Tales series, but that's besides the point.) Fargo is the first show since Breaking Bad that genuinely compels me to indulge the next episode right when one finishes, and not through cynical enigmatic storytelling. It's carefully shot, well acted, the story has a wonderful sense of pragmatism and unpredictability, yet it owes everything to the last decade of "quality TV".
I don't suggest that being at all derivative renders a product false, cynical or at all artistically lacking. To assume a good show must be born purely from original artistic flair is counter-intuitive, not to mention unrealistic. Art rarely exists in a vacuum, and when it does, it's usually weird and lonely. Occasionally, something will appear truly inspired, and stand out from its influences. Fargo is not one of those things, and I'm cool with that.
Fargo has everything we've been told to expect from a quality show. Multiple interlocking narratives from distinct characters, a story of everyday people being corrupted, extended mediation on philosophy and religion that might be a metaphor or maybe the writers just think it's neat, and of course, untimely character deaths that put you on edge and make you think anything could happen! Fargo ticks all the boxes, and it ticks them well.
Fargo even feels derivative of other Coen Brothers movies. There's a character who is basically Brad Pitt from Burn After Reading, and the overall story feels more like No Country For Old Men than the 1996 Fargo. None of this damages the show, however. Aside from playing off a pilot episode that's rendered a complete dud by some very lax and unconvincing character motivations, Fargo nails the sense of suspense and intrigue we've been taught to yearn for. It's like someone split Breaking Bad in half, and moulded the measured, realistic character growth into Better Call Saul, and used the chaotic, fun, volatile narrative sensibilities to make Fargo; then put Bob Odenkirk in both of them!
The show has a fantastic management of its pacing, and knows how to drive a narrative, but there was a moment in a pivotal episode that struck me. Several characters engage in a shootout amidst a snowstorm (quite reminiscent of one of the best levels in The Last of Us). One character gets the jump on another, and someone I genuinely liked is mercilessly killed off. I should have been aghast, and taken to twitter like it's the Red Wedding all over again, but instead, I thought "Yep. That's what TV shows do." My relative indifference to the punches Fargo pulls isn't a failure on its part, nor does it signal the end of this kind expectations-trashing storytelling. It's simply the difference between a very good show, and an incredible one. Fargo does everything its "premium" predecessors did; it's just all in the knowledge that it's audience is into that sort of thing.
In an environment where a good return means a season finale so tense that no one in the audience breathes, is it getting harder to surprise a viewership? Perhaps. The bar has been set very high, and Fargo sits quite neatly atop it, lighting a camp fire, and perhaps even erecting a hammock. It may gain a greater sense of originality as it adopts the anthology model, where Season 2 will include an entirely new time period, set of characters and storyline. In that sense, Fargo at least has the edge on True Detective, which expects me to come back for Season 2 just to see Colin Farrell's moustache. Obviously I will, but that's not the point.