If you’re the type of person who interrupts conversations about Game of Thrones to let everyone know you “just don’t have time for TV” because of how busy your life is… Well, we probably don’t like you. Television is great; it distracts us from the monotony of everyday life and entertains us to no end. Anyone who says otherwise is probably a vegan. Or a fan of The Walking Dead.
Lucky for TV addicts, this week sees the return of what many consider to be the two best shows on television: HBO’s The Leftovers and FX’s Fargo. Both series are coming off of stellar second seasons that left fans and critics in awe (I believe the kids these days would say it was “lit”). But which show is the undisputed best on TV? So glad you asked because we’re about to debate just that.
Eric, will you please present your opening statement?
Eric – Team Leftovers
In my day, I’ve probably watched more TV than the average person, but that said, probably not as much as you, Brandon. But I have been watching ‘prestige’ TV for a while now, starting with, ironically, Damon Lindelof’s Lost. But of all the shows I’ve seen throughout my life — from the juggernauts like Lost, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, to the little guys like Peaky Blinders, Humans, and Justified — The Leftovers has provided the most wholly emotional experience of any television show, and frankly, any form of art I’ve ever seen.
To me, that’s why we invest in any art form: emotion. Breaking Bad’s inherent success didn’t stem from its taut storytelling, but because you cared about, rooted for, and then maybe eventually despised, Walter White. People didn’t adore The Sopranos because of the accurate depiction of mob culture — they loved it because, deep down, they were always rooting for Tony to get away. David Chase cutting to black was so impactful not because people needed to know what happened, but because they wanted Tony to live.
Sure, a plot twist here or a well-written soliloquy there provides the necessary excitement and edge-of-your-seat entertainment that all great shows require, but if you don’t love the characters and the world, what’s the point? When it comes to The Leftovers, we’re talking about a show that has ended its first two seasons with almost identical scenes (and I’m predicting now the third and final will be similar) — the mere facial expression of a character. And you don’t get away with that because you’ve been fooling the audience with timeline twists or blowing them away with witty Sorkin-esque dialogue. You get there because you’ve created characters that the audience genuinely loves, and to me, that’s the point of the medium that is television.
Brandon – Team Fargo
Oh Eric, Eric, Eric. While I respect your pop culture opinion and share your deep appreciation for The Leftovers, I can’t in good conscious favor it over Fargo. The Leftovers forces audiences to question everything: spirituality, science, the supernatural, grief, loss and family. Thematically, it’s as satisfyingly stacked as a tasty Big Mac. But to pull this off, Lindelof once again feels the need to deliberately confuse his audience for the sake of WTF-ness. I don’t need answers to every last question; on the contrary, I enjoy entertaining my own interpretations. But at some point, the show loses a touch of its meaning when viewers are constantly debating what’s real and what’s not. Purposeful misdirection can be useful, but it can also undercut the very emotion you speak of.
Fargo, on the other hand, makes the straight forward look dizzyingly eccentric (think Willy Wonka plopped into a murder mystery). TV is an art form where I embrace innovation. From storybook narration and UFO’s to out-of-left-field flashbacks and unexpected time jumps, Fargo is unafraid to experiment with content, form and structure while telling finite tales. From a pure storytelling perspective, it’s the most unique show on TV.
You say characters are the single-most crucial element to a successful series and I completely agree. So what does it say about Fargo, an anthology that reinvents itself from year-to-year, that it manages to develop three-dimensional characters that audiences relate to and care about in the span of just 10 episodes. The Leftovers, meanwhile, struggled in its first season before finding its footing in its most recent go-around.
Both shows are great, but Fargo‘s blend of dark humor, quirky characters, smidgen of absurdity and inventive imagination put it ahead of the relentlessly dour Leftovers.
So, Eric, what about Fargo turns you off?
Eric – Team Leftovers
It’s not so much about was Fargo doesn’t do, but rather what The Leftovers continues to do. Besides, the internet is filled with negative opinions, so instead of ranting about what I don’t like about Fargo, I’ll opine over what I love about The Leftovers. While my first point was more ideological, I’ll make my second and final point more about the fundamentals of the show: cinematography, writing, characters, etc.
The Leftovers is renowned for its cinematography. Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be some sort of expert, but I do indeed have eyeballs, and these eyeballs have seen a lot of cinematography, and The Leftovers is damn good. Not since the first season of True Detective have I seen such haunting camera work. And if you don’t want to take my eyeballs’ word for it, just hit the Google Machine for a couple of reviews, like this one from Collider:
You really feel the show take advantage of the Australia setting, and it’s visually dynamic in a way that honestly rivals Game of Thrones—albeit from a more human, grounded, realistic perspective.
Now, as for the writing, you wanna talk about Chekov’s gun? The Leftovers is a master class in such. Every action has a reaction and ever element introduced has a payoff. Lindelof learned from his ‘make it up as you go’ approach on Lost, so you bet your ass that every plot thread or character arc introduced in The Leftovers is paid off — whether that be by the end an episode or throughout the course of a season. The Leftovers is unconcerned with being a ’10 hour movie’: its episodes both stand alone individually and drive an overarching narrative — meaning you get the instant gratification of complete episodes that are entertaining in a vacuum, as well as a coherent, season-long story.
Finally, as for the characters, and the reason I think a serialized drama has an advantage over an anthology, is that the audience spends YEARS with a character, as opposed to 10 weeks a year. Building on the past decisions and mistakes of a character makes the ultimate happy ending or tragic downfall of a character that much more rewarding, or devastating.
I watched Jon Snow grow from an unwanted bastard into a leader of men for four years. Then I watched him die and thought he was dead (not really) for another year. Then I watched him come back to life! I watched Jack and Sawyer fight over Kate’s love for six years, and every time one of them lost, it broke my heart.
I’ve been hoping to see Kevin Harvey survive whatever it is that may kill him for years now, ironically, since Fargo premiered. So, while Fargo fans have been introduced to dozens of characters who have come and gone, I’ve been rooting for one, and I believe that makes for the more powerful experience.
Brandon – Team Fargo
Woah, woah, woah; slow your roll before you suddenly depart too. “They don’t have the luxury of starting fresh every season?” It’s more like Fargo has the burden of starting over every season and being forced to invent new stories and characters out of thin air. And they do it flawlessly.
Again, I respect and like The Leftovers, but if you want to talk fundamentals, look no further than season two of Fargo.
The last installment of the anthology series may very well have been a perfect season of television, and I say that as someone who has spent far too many Friday nights alone on his couch binge watching TV. Good characters? Hanzee Dent proved to be one of the most layered TV villains in recent memory (less outright evil than Gus Fringe). High-quality cinematography? Season two somehow managed to make the Midwest in winter look like a viable vacation destination.
But if you want to bring in outside help, I match your Google search and raise you with the go-to source on all things TV, Uproxx’s Alan Sepinwall:
There have been a lot of moments to hold your breath so far with “Fargo.” First, would it be a complete fiasco that might somehow sully our memories of the film? Then, once it was obviously good, how long could it keep it up? Then, would it satisfyingly tie up its sprawling story? And then, could the show possibly do it again for another season?
Exhale. By now, it’s clear that the first season wasn’t a fluke, or a miracle, but a sturdy piece of work made by people who have a fundamental command of this world and its tone, and who can reasonably be expected to keep it going for a while.
Is The Leftovers good TV? Absolutely. But does Fargo have a greater sense of flair and better rewatchability thanks to it season-by-season format? “Oh geez, you betcha!”
Eric – Team Leftovers
All I’m sayin’ is, find me an anthology drama that is held in as high a regard as a serialized drama. Not saying it’s a gimmick, just saying it doesn’t necessarily stand the test of time. In 10, 15 years, people will be talking about The Leftovers, not Fargo … that is, of course, unless the world’s circumstances don’t depart us before then.
The Leftovers returns to HBO on Sunday, April 16. Fargo returns to FX on Wednesday, April 19.