Q&A: How Fargo’s Showrunner Made the Best Television You’ll See This Fall

Noah Hawley on nurturing the brand

Headshot of Jason Lynch

While there may be "too much television" on the air, there has been a lack of truly great TV this fall. None of the 22 new broadcast shows have broken through in terms of quality the way Jane the Virgin, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat did last season. But that creative drought ends Monday with the Season 2 premiere of Fargo (10 p.m. on FX), the fall's best show.

Noah Hawley, who adapted the iconic 1996 Coen Brothers film in last year's finest miniseries, has returned with an equally magnificent second season. The action takes place in 1979 and moves to Luverne, Minn., and Sioux Falls, S.D., where Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson, playing a younger version of Keith Carradine's character from Season 1) is investigating a brutal shooting at a diner involving a family crime gang, the mob and other locals. While True Detective—which also came off a triumphant first season—imploded this summer, Fargo's second season is as confidant, surprising and rewarding as ever.

Hawley sat down to talk about nurturing the Fargo brand, the True Detective Season 2 backlash, product integration and what comes next.

Adweek: In the past year, networks have been trying to turn dozens of movies into series, with mixed results. How did you approach this brand and film that people had a strong affinity for and successfully adapt it for TV?

Noah Hawley: Obviously, when you take something as beloved and iconic as Fargo, the risks are enormous. You risk offending so many people. But there are a few things that went right from the beginning. FX said to me, "We're thinking about doing this as a TV show. We're wondering, can you do it without Marge [Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand]?" She's such an iconic character, and who else would you use from the movie? So, if you don't have any characters from the movie and you're not telling the story of the movie, what are you doing? That was really fascinating to me. 

What did you do?

I said, Why is the movie called Fargo at all? It takes place in Minnesota—only the first scene in the movie takes place in Fargo. Except the word "Fargo" is so evocative of that place, the frozen tundra. And so the word itself has a resonance to it, which now from the movie has come to mean this sort of true-crime story that isn't true, where truth is stranger than fiction. So if we look at it that way, then Fargo becomes a concept within which we can tell these stories. And the other part of what the brand was to me is, because it calls itself a true story, it has to be believable as true. And part of what made it believable as true was that at the end [of the movie], Marge gets into bed with her husband, she saw the worst thing she's ever going to see, he got the 3-cent stamp, and tomorrow's going to be a normal day. So, that has to be part of the brand as well.

Understanding those constraints, then you go, OK, what's the story? For me, I had this image of these two men in an emergency room. One was a very civilized man, and who was the other guy? And that's where [Season 1] came from. This year, there was a similar thought: What kicks us off is that something goes very, very wrong, and the result is that people who are on the fence morally have to be pushed to do an ever-escalating series of things that digs a deeper and deeper hole. It's the idea that Kirsten [Dunst]'s character would run someone down with her car and then hide it, which is a transgression which ultimately has to catch up with her.

While Season 1 had to measure up to the movie, Season 2 has to measure up to both the movie and the success of Season 1. Did that make it more difficult?

I started as a novelist and did some film work and moved into television. I had two shows before this [2009's The Unusuals and 2010's My Generation], neither of which made it past 10 hours. So, for better or worse, television trained me to invest a year or two of my life into 10 episodes and then start again. That's normal to me. It would be weirder to come in and go, "OK, what are these crazy people doing again this year?" But yes, there's a ghost in the room, which was how amazingly successful the first year was.

There was a huge backlash this summer over True Detective, with people comparing it to the first season and feeling that it didn't measure up. How were you processing that, realizing you were about to be in the same situation?

Well, A: It's just TV. (laughs) But B: I would say the miniseries, or the limited series, is not a new medium, but it is an unexplored and unexploited medium. And part of what's exciting about making these six- or eight- or 10-hour movies is the rules really haven't been set yet. A two-hour movie is a very specific thing, and you've got to tell the story in this linear fashion, as directly as possible, because you just don't have the time. And a TV series is another thing where you can never make really drastic choices, because you're back next year and those characters can't go too far from where they started. But this is like a long-form movie with a beginning, middle and end. And you can make really bold choices every hour, because every step you take is a step toward the conclusion of that.

So let's put it through its paces: How much can we abstract it, structurally? I will always defend our right to experiment. Sometimes it's more successful; sometimes it's less. I'm happy. I feel like I knew instinctually that once I started telling this story that it was very different. It's a much bigger story, as you see. Even cinematically, we're making a '70s movie with split screens and so, I had to see that all the way through. But it can't be a gimmick-driven show. It has to be, at its heart, a character-driven show with decency versus evil. I'm a populist—I root for the good guy, and you can't lose sight of that, either.

One advantage of this season being set in 1979 is that you don't have to worry about product integration.

Yeah. Do you want us to see the best car you made in 1976? But at the same time, it's great to be able to integrate stuff as you would in real life. I did two shows for ABC, and they won't let you mention a product or put something in that's recognizable without charging money for it. Especially because I made a documentary-style show [with My Generation], it's so important that people think they're in the real world. I can't have a can of generic beer. And so that desire to monetize everything can really be a hindrance to creating the vérité stories that you might want to tell. But even here, we run into some issues because of the violence of the show. It's hard to clear a children's book to read in a show with violence in it—as it probably should be! But it presents some challenges of its own.

Did you have to make up your own children's book? 

No, we got one from the '20s or the '30s. You just go to the really old stuff or public domain—same with music. There are some artists who, by this point in their careers, they don't want to put songs in sequences that have violence in them. It's a learning curve. It's interesting.

You laid the groundwork for the Season 2 story last year, when Lou Solverson and other characters referenced the events of Sioux Falls. Are you doing the same thing this season, setting up Season 3?

I don't know yet. There's a lot of stuff in there, and there are different ways that we could go. No, I didn't build one backstory into it that we could play off of. But I like the idea that you watch the first three hours of the first year and you thought OK, it's not actually connected to the movie at all. And then suddenly it was: They find the money [buried in the snow at the end of the movie]. I like the idea that now the first year is connected to the movie, and the second year is connected to the first year. So, as long as there's something that connects to one of the pieces, then there's a consistency to it that's interesting. It's a fun thing to be able to start to build a mythology.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.