Magical Realism is one of those literary styles that’s hard to get a hold of. It’s not fantasy, there’s no set of new “rules” for the world that are introduced (no formal introduction of new species, magic, etc.). It’s also not Science Fiction. We’re not envisioning a world with more advanced technology that makes things seem real but also introduces elements like cloning, transportation, or time travel. It’s taking the world as it is, and simply adding a few bits of magic into it that gives it a different tone or texture. It’s a way to develop feelings rather than a way to develop place. There’s commentary to be found, but the basic world and story can be understood without it. There are a lot of writers I could cite here, but for television the only show that I’ve seen nail it is Noah Hawley’s Fargo.
The problem with taking magical realism to television is that most of the time it ends up as “high concept”, where there’s a specific way that this world functions differently, or a specific new set of rules guiding life and behavior, and characters are working around or reacting to that. Bryan Fuller works a lot in the high concept space, both Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me are good examples of how it works. It’s also not surrealism, something that Fuller seemed to put to use in Hannibal, where dreams and fantasies were blurred with reality. High concept is a show set in Minnesota, where people make contact with aliens. Surrealism is when you find out that the aliens were simply dreams shared by the whole town. Magical realism, and Fargo, is when the aliens are just there to add a flavor of uncertainty to the whole thing, and perhaps even a comment on the inconsequential nature of the whole mess in the larger world.
Coming up to the end of the third season, Hawley is leaning into this theme harder than ever before. It can be frustrating at times to recognize that we won’t get answers to some of the “mysteries” because they’re not mysteries within the show at all. Why did Nikki and Mr. Wrench end up at a 24-hour bowling alley with Gloria’s plane buddy and a kitten? Was he the devil or an angel? Was it purgatory? Why did they end up alive but Yuri never came back? Whatever answers you come up with are good enough, because those scenes functioned the way they needed to in the story; they confronted characters in a vulnerable moment in an environment where exposition could happen. And they paid tribute to The Big Lebowski. Why can’t Gloria interact with automatic sensors, and why is she able to after Winnie hugs her? Coincidence or a comment on finding her sense of self after a few years where everything she thought was true about her life was taken away from her? Both is fine.
I understand why this could be frustrating to a lot of viewers. Once I recognized the technique for what it was, it allowed me to let go of a lot of the expectations I would normally have for serialized television and settled into appreciating the broad thematic arcs and the acting. I’m very excited to see how things wrap up tonight, but I’m just as excited to see which mysteries they let be.