Reality TV

‘This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.’

These words appear onscreen before the opening credits of every episode of Fargo (so far) in front of the master shot one sentence at a time, with a gradual fade on the first one which leaves the word ‘true’ alone on the screen for a second. They follow a network warning which also tells viewers how real the show is going to be, but here it is not the veracity of the events depicted in question but the adult nature of its content. First-time viewers will most likely accept these words on face value as they are delivered without a trace of irony in the solemn legalese one expects from such prefixes. Those coming to Fargo from the 1996 Coen Brothers movie on which it is based will probably be in on the joke, if only for the sake of not being fooled twice. They will remember that the movie opened with almost the same words, the only difference being the date which was originally ‘1987’. Most of them will have subsequently discovered that this was in fact a lie…in fact. I doubt the producers of Fargo are counting on people falling for the same trick but choosing to begin each show with a hoax is more than mere homage.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth.

The series would have to have been made anticipating viewers instantly finding out about the movie’s hoax from any number of debunking websites and presuming the same of the TV version, or at least assuming fiction until there is evidence to the contrary. As the programme rewards knowledge of the original film by segueing their storylines into a coherent fictional world, we can deduce that if one is bogus, the other is too. The original prefix was clearly designed to convince audiences of its legitimacy, with formal white text on a serious black screen set aside from the dramatic body of the movie. The adaptation more or less tells us the prefix is phoney, reduced to its basic meaning (‘true’) to show us how flimsy and insubstantial it is without the window-dressing of dates and places. Despite all these mitigations, I still can’t help but feel that the producers are clinging to the hope that somebody somewhere will be duped if only because of the longstanding reputation of television as a truth-telling medium. They may be counting on viewers making distinctions between the way TV witnesses events of the world and how movies provide escape from it to get them to buy into the illusion against their better judgement. This could be why we get the prefix week-upon-week rather than at the beginning of the season. Indeed, I hope it has been included in attempt to pull off a hoax against the odds of a multi-platform age of information plenitude.

White Lies.

White Lies.

After all, TV still cares about distinguishing truth from fiction, or at least it pretends to. After carrying us along with a montage-based fiction for an hour, many reality programmes remind us with a straight face that ‘portions of the programme have been edited’, though as we have not seen a reaction taking place in the same shot as the preceding action for the entirety of the episode, we can guess as much. Simply from the self-evident fabrications of what we see, we are as aware that a reality programme is fiction offered as fact as we are that Fargo isn’t and never was a ‘true story’. But reality TV producers aren’t putting up the disclaimers because they think we’re suspicious about the truth of what we see. They’re doing it so as not to be accused of cheating. The disclaimer usually comes with the condition that it applies to parts of the episode ‘not affecting the outcome of the competition’. It’s not being lied to that is the problem, but what we’re being lied to about. In the hierarchy of reality television, making an artificially conceived competition reasonably fair to contestants is more important than representing people fairly. There isn’t anyone specific being lied about it in the Fargo prefix, but by claiming that the events actually happened in a certain place and time, there is a distinct odour of misrepresentation, at least regionally. Maybe Fargo’s built-in self-denials derive more from fear of offence than disillusion with the masquerade.

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