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Does FX’s ‘Fargo’ Get ‘Minnesota Nice’?

Well, that definition certainly is different.

10:33 AM CST on November 28, 2023

FX|

Apologies for this lousy photo of my TV. Hulu won’t let me take a screenshot.

Beware, Minnesota. A new season of Fargo began last week.

Five seasons in now, we know better (we do, right?) than to expect authentic Minnesotiana from showrunner Noah Hawley’s serialized historical riffs on the Coen Brothers film. We watch—or rather listen—to hear how this season’s chosen Brit will mangle our pinched singsong accent, vowels sometimes veering toward an odd Irish-adjacency. 

“We don’t talk like that!” was the gripe even back when the movie first arrived in 1996. These days no one outside of us media-types likes to mention it, now that Fargo is accepted as a classic, but when I moved here in ’97 some folks were still simmering in their quiet Minnesotan way about the Coens’ stereotypes. (A friend and his wife, both Michigan transplants, recall laughing their asses off at a Fargo screening at the Uptown—and then noticing the stony silence of their fellow theatergoers.)    

Anyway, season 5 star Juno Temple’s accent is practically direct Marge Gunderson mimicry, which makes sense since this TV show seems to believe Minnesotans are mythical species invented by the Coens. We’ve weathered worse.

The current season is set in 2019, and makes a swipe or two at verisimilitude. (Temple’s Dot Lyon watches The Jason Show while she knits in her Scandia home.) But the closer to present day Fargo creeps, the weirder its stereotypes seem. Here we are, a year before Minnesota is redefined nationally and internationally—as the place where the police murdered a man in the street, the place where protesters drove the cops from their precinct and set Lake Street ablaze—and we’re bumbling through the same you-betcha don't-cha-know yokel act? Granted, I don’t spend a lot of time in Washington County, but I doubt anyone there says “commode” nearly as much as the folks on this show do.

But yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all old hat. So let’s move on to an actually important matter. 

We do need to address the fact that the show begins with an onscreen dictionary definition of “Minnesota nice” that seems, at best, incomplete:

“An aggressively pleasant demeanor, often forced, in which a person is chipper and self-effacing, no matter how bad things get.”

So “Minnesota Nice,” according to lifelong New Yorker (boo!) Hawley, is a kind of stoicism masked by projected cheer. That’s… interesting (he said Minnesotanly). While definitely an improvement on how out-of-staters typically misperceive “Minnesota Nice” as just a peculiar regional form of pleasantness, it’s also… not how I use it? And probably not how you do either. Making matters even more provincially problematic, this season of Fargo was filmed in Canada—what could we possibly have in common with them?

Here’s where I add the caveat that I am not From Here, and though I’ve lived here for nearly two decades, I’ve spent most of my time in the Twin Cities. But for me, at the least, Minnesota Nice implies a chilly, imposed distance—a friendliness designed to keep the other party at arm’s length. More commonly, it’s politeness that masks passive-aggressiveness, smiling to avoid direct conflict, a less genteel variation on “bless your soul” southernness. Sen. Amy Klobuchar gave the nation a crash course on this while grinning through her privately seething 2020 presidential campaign.  

But mostly, it’s a combination of qualities that the Coens, who knew their neighbors all too well, captured (via William H. Macy) in the snaky Jerry Lundegaard rather than spelling it out on the screen with words.

As for this season of Fargo, all I know is that Jon Hamm just really wasn’t meant to sound like this. Especially since his character lives in North Dakota.

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