When A TV Show Premieres With The Same Name As Where You Live

Image: the scene from Broadway before the premiere of “Fargo” at the Fargo Theatre. Kris Kerzman, The Arts Partnership

By Kris Kerzman, The Arts Partnership

I don’t really know what happened when “Dallas” premiered. Or “Eureka.” Or “Portlandia.” Or “Beverly Hills 90210.”

But I can tell you what I now know, which is this. When a TV show premiers and it has the same name as the place you live, as the new FX show “Fargo” did on Tuesday, it’s impossible not to feel something. (In the case of me and the hundreds of people who showed up for Tuesday’s premiere party at the Fargo Theatre, I would classify that feeling as “thrilling.”)

A lot of that has to do with our connection to a place. A sense of place is a precious-yet-evasive concept to pin down, and vitally important to the livelihood of neighborhoods, cities, and whole regions. The concepts we form around a place are significant, and in the case of where you live, that’s often part and parcel with our concept of “home.” Heavy stuff.

I think about this notion a lot and have been especially in the days and weeks in the run-up to the “Fargo” premiere. I love the interaction of a work of fiction with a place. “The Wire” could still be a great show, but it wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t set in Baltimore. The cloudy mood of Seattle was a perfect place to set “The Killing.” And, if anything is set in New York, of course, “New York” is always a character.

Which brings me to “Fargo.” What is the place we’re supposed to get a sense of, and how do both movie and, now, TV show interact with that sense of place?

Let’s start with the obvious: Fargo isn’t the place we’re talking about when we talk about “Fargo.” That place is essentially Bemidji and other locales in rural Minnesota and North Dakota, which means if Fargo doesn’t factor in geographically or if it is to stand in for a whole region, it must factor in with something more abstract. I think it relies on a few things, namely a few popular assumptions about our landscape, weather, and dominant social traits like politeness and stoicism.

But the big operator here is a sense of familiarity. Or rather, just enough familiarity, and it’s where the “Fargo” universe gently plays with the notion of place. Fargo isn’t a large city, but it’s large enough to register every now and then nationally. It’s kind of familiar, but it’s also an elusive place to much of the rest of the country and the world, as it might have been to the St. Louis Park-born Coen brothers. “I’m sure wonderful people live in Fargo,” someone in Baltimore or Portland or Dallas might say, “but I’m not quite sure I’d ever get there to find out. Because … I mean, it’s really cold there, right?”

You betcha, it is. And for that reason, and a few more, Fargo has this history of being a sort of amorphous and anomalous place, a la the Twin Peaks of “Twin Peaks.” Until 1996, very little narrative came out of here other than a faint idea of “desolation.” That’s a perfect place to set a murder mystery – unusual bad guy strolls into sleepy town with murder on his mind, nice guy gets pushed to his limits and acts completely out of character, earnest cops take up the case, all set against a vast expanse of blowing snow and humble houses and plaid shirts and, yes, our accents and vernacular. To borrow from Rumsfeld, “Fargo” presents the larger viewing audience with unknown knowns, a quirky and vaguely familiar set of them.

A lot has changed in both the pop culture landscape and the socio-economic landscape since the Coens first led audiences to “Fargo.” North Dakota is no longer a barren hinterland (it never really was) but a vigorous player in the nation’s energy economy. Fargo is no longer a city people have never heard of or visited – it regularly tops livability lists and is steadily growing, and growing more diverse. Businesses are starting up here, the downtown is hopping most nights of the week, new restaurants seem to pop up on a weekly basis, and owning a home in a good neighborhood with decent schools is well within reach of most. In other words, Fargo now has a very distinct and positive sense of place. It exhibits a palpable identity and a sterling reputation. Meanwhile, the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” universe is equally alive and well … or rather, twisted and bloody and alive and well. It’s now it’s own singular entity, still resolutely off-beat and now invigorated by a new Golden Age of Television that puts an emphasis on long-form, provocative storytelling using A-list talent.

I would love to say something of the city Fargo is “captured” in the show “Fargo,” but that isn’t the case. More importantly, it isn’t the point of “Fargo.” The point is that for some stories to be told, they can’t blast iconic imagery or postcard-ready skylines. They need something murkier, fuzzier, more gray than black-and-white. Somewhere where good folks live, gosh darn it, but ugly evil seethes underneath, and when it lashes out it’s as shocking as the sight of blood on snow.

Stories like that don’t need Fargo, the city. They need “Fargo,” the idea.

Perhaps that’s what made the “Fargo” premiere party so lively and fun. Everyone in the city Fargo is comfortably aware (as is the wider audience) that the fictional “Fargo” really has nothing to do with the city in which we live and work, and so we can acknowledge and enjoy the distinctions. We can even own it. We can wear bomber hats semi-ironically and throw in a few more “oh yahs” into conversation. And, meanwhile, we can enjoy the sensation of our city’s name on the lips of thousands and thousands of people across the country and the world … and of course, we’ll be polite and gracious about the whole gosh-darned thing, by golly.

After all, that’s just what ya do here.

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