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'Good Lord Bird' Is a Better Coen Brothers-Inspired Show Than 'Fargo' Season 4

By Dustin Rowles | TV | October 6, 2020 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | October 6, 2020 |


There might have been a time where I would have welcomed a two-hour-and-45-minute (with commercials) double-episode premiere of Fargo followed by a 90-minute (with commercials) follow-up. When a show is clicking, an episode’s runtime is usually an afterthought, but when it’s not? It feels like self-indulgence, and Fargo season four decidedly is not clicking. Watching season four of Fargo feels like being held hostage by the memory of seasons past as well as some of our favorite people — Chris Rock! Timothy Olyphant! Jason Schwartzman! Ben Whishaw! Jack Huston! Andrew Bird? — and yet still feel like we want to escape a show with enough bloat to press us uncomfortably into the table’s corner.

Mind you, all the ingredients are there: Season four is set in 1950 Kansas City, where a criminal Italian family, the Faddas led by Josto (Schwartzman), is in a turf battle with a criminal Black family, the Cannons, led by Loy (Chris Rock). A war is brewing between the two communities, each of whom believes that taking over turf by force is the only answer. In the midst of this are two women — Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and her lover Swanee Capps (Kelsey Asbille) — who have escaped from prison and are hiding out in the home/funeral home of Zelmare’s sister, Dibrell Smutney, her husband Thurman and their mixed-race daughter, Ethelrida. There are also a contingent of lawmen (Timothy Olyphant, Jack Huston), a Jew (Wishaw) mixed up with the Italian family, and a wildcard, Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), a racist nurse who apparently likes to put her patients out of their misery and also steal their drugs.

On paper, it all sounds like a marvelous season of Fargo — a strong cast, intriguing premise, great character names (Swanee Capps!), and a few solid lines — but despite 4 and a half hours of episodes, so far (with commercials), it has not cohered. It’s thin. It lacks soul. Jason Schwartzman still looks like he belongs in a Wes Anderson movie. The performances — with the exception of Jessie Buckley (who zings) and perhaps Timothy Olyphant — lack energy, and I hate to say it about a show we’d all been anticipating for so long, but Fargo season 4 has been a slog that not even Chris Rock can save, in part because Chris Rock is sparingly used.

All of its missing energy, on the other hand, seems to have been consumed by Showtime’s new series, Good Lord Bird, which may be the most crackling and entertaining series you’ll ever watch about the abolitionist movement. It’s based on a 2013 National Book award-winning novel by James McBride (that I must read now) about a slave named Henry Shackleford who unites with John Brown and his abolitionist mission. Brown, who is played with fiery energy by Ethan Hawke (who adapted the book with Mark Richard), feels like a Tarantino character plopped into a Coen Brothers’ Western. He is the rare onscreen character that vibrates with intensity.

Brown is deeply religious, and so devoted to the abolitionist cause that he takes an almost gleeful approach to violence. He will fuck up a slave-owner like nobody’s business. In fact, he’s also so blindly devoted to the cause that he barely notices the very slaves he is ostensibly trying to help. To wit: Brown thinks that Henry Shackleford — from whose perspective the story is told — is actually a girl, and he puts him in a dress and calls him Onion, named after a rancid good-luck charm that Henry inadvertently eats.

James McBride’s novel is often compared to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as told by Henry, and there’s certainly some of that here (Henry will also encounter Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass), but it really does feel like a Coen Brothers’ Western, like True Grit, infused with a more madcap sense of humor more akin to O Brother Where Art Thou?. The pilot comes from Albert Hughes, who directed (along with his brother) The Book of Eli, another violent Western about a deeply religious man, albeit a post-apocalyptic one.

The combination of influences — Twain, Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, the Hughes Brothers — makes for one hell of a soup. Granted, historical fiction about John Brown might suggest an eat-your-vegetables kind of drama, but Good Lord Bird is more like vegetarian pizza slathered in hot sauce. It only gives you the illusion that it’s good for you so you don’t feel as bad about eating an entire large pizza in one sitting. Given the opportunity, I would have binged the entire 7 hours of Good Lord Bird — it is everything I wanted in another season of Fargo.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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Header Image Source: FX/Showtime