ChapterPDF Available

The Rise of ‘Bright Noir’: Redemption and Moral Optimism in American Contemporary TV Noir



This article explores how some recent American TV crime dramas that can be specifically labelled as noir address the issue of hope and redemption by undermining one of the main thematic and ideological features that both spectators and critics tend to assign to noir narratives: the logic of hopelessness, of no way out. In what I have coined as ‘bright noir’, several recent, influential and popular TV noir series (such as Justified or Fargo) offer stories in which brave protagonists achieve a positive outcome and defeat evil while fulfilling a higher purpose or attaining an honourable end.
41© The Author(s) 2018
K. Toft Hansen et al. (eds.), European Television Crime Drama and
Beyond, Palgrave European Film and Media Studies,
The Rise of‘Bright Noir’
Redemption and Moral Optimism in American
Contemporary TV Noir
Lou Solverson: We’re just out of balance.
Betsy Solverson: You and me?
Lou Solverson: Whole world. Used to know right from wrong. A moral
centre. Now…
(Fargo, ‘Fear and Trembling’, season 2, episode 4)
Seated on the porch of their home, the Solversons reect on evil and its
masks, consequences and origins. Such ruminations have always been
implicit, and sometimes explicit, in lm noir since its emergence.
However, as the above scene illustrates, Fargo (FX, 2014–) addresses evil
from a classical moral perspective, as opposed to the anti-heroism and
cynicism of angry, contradictory protagonists that have characterized the
rst decade of the golden age of television ction (Martin 2013; Lotz
2014; Vaage 2015). Fargo is unlike other ‘quality TV’ crime series—such
A. N. García (*)
Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain
as The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007), The Wire (HBO, 2002–2008) or
The Shield (FX, 2002–2008)—because the Solversons demonstrate hope,
the ‘cousin’ of optimism.
Fargo embraces optimism, which, as dened by the anthropologist
Lionel Tiger, is ‘a mood or attitude associated with an expectation about
the social or material future—one which the evaluator regards as socially
desirable, to his advantage, or for his pleasure’ (1979, 53). During the rst
two seasons and against all odds, the Solverson clan exhibits an anthropo-
logical hopefulness that, far from being naïve, is characterized by courage
and reason; they rely on patience and persistence to rectify and overcome
human evil.
This article explores how some recent American TV crime dramas (and
to a lesser extent, some British)1 that can be specically labelled as noir
address the issue of hope and redemption by undermining one of the main
thematic and ideological features that both spectators and critics tend to
assign to noir narratives—i.e., the logic of hopelessness, of ‘no way out’,
to paraphrase Porrio’s classic article (1996). Or, as Turnbull puts it, ‘A
useful full-form of the acronym ‘noir’ may therefore be: Negative Outcome
Is Requisite. In other words: It’s only going to end in tears’ (2014, 29).
In what I have coined as ‘bright noir’, several recent, inuential and popu-
lar TV noir series offer stories in which brave protagonists achieve a
positive outcome and defeat evil while fullling a higher purpose or attain-
ing an honourable end.
To approach this idea, the article rst recalls that existentialism and
moral alienation became essential features of lm noir, which remains a
controversial term. It then explains the sociological and artistic reasons
that have led to this wave of morally hopeful noir. Finally, this thesis will
be demonstrated with in-depth analysis of key series from recent American
TV crime ction, with particular attention given to Justied (FX,
2010–2015) and Fargo.
A MorAlly Grey AreA
As Steenberg recently summarized, ‘noir is a worn and frayed category—
much discussed by scholars, critics, and lmmakers themselves’ (2017,
62). This article does not intend to widen the uidity of the term, but
rather to focus on one particular strand of the TV crime drama, broadly
characterized by moral ambiguity, a mood of unhappiness, and a bleak
realism. Nowadays, noir is ‘a fusion of nostalgia and imitation that can
Full-text available
Fargo (2014), the TV series created by Noah Hawley and executive-produced by the Coen brothers, constitutes both a prime example of the recent trend in US quality TV and a successful adaptation of a film text, the 1996 movie of the same name made by Joel and Ethan Coen. It is our understanding that the achievement of the TV series springs from a creative design that allows the viewer to recognize in it an unmistakable family resemblance with its predecessor, while at the same time becoming an enjoyable narrative in its own right, as an autonomous text. Thus, fans of the film can take pleasure in the recurring thematic, tonal, aesthetic and narrative links that the series establishes with the movie, and at the same time be captivated by a brilliant new plot and characters. This article analyses the creative strategies deployed to frame the narrative and aesthetic family resemblance between Fargo the series and Fargo the movie. It explores the cluster of intersections between the film and the TV show in relation to four categories: 1) The choice of a diegetic universe related to the original, which also frames the series within similar genre coordinates. Both productions present an investigative, thriller-ish plot that unfolds against the breath-taking snowy backdrops of Minnesota and Dakota, enabling us to view them under the paradoxical label of white noir. 2) The dramatic construction of the main characters in the series replicates the struggle between good and evil present in the film, through the choice of analogous roles: good, incarnated again in an ordinary police woman; and evil, in the hitman duo from Fargo and Lorne Malvo, a diabolical character who features only in the TV show. Moreover, the series extends the antiheroic, pathetic archetype that acts as a catalyst for the intrusion of evil in the plot. 3) Traces of certain narrative and visual echoes comprise the clearest mode of resemblance, although they are also used to drive the plot in new directions and to underscore the metaphorical meaning of the mise-en-scène. 4) And last but not least, the development of the expressive possibilities of the landscape, which —in both film and TV series— is portrayed as linked with the inner world and personality of the characters. The purpose of this analysis is to show how the creative choices made in the process of adapting Fargo as a series have established a dialogue, rich in nuance and intertextuality, with its cinematic predecessor. That the show has been classified as a free adaptation, a tribute or even a sequel to the film is no accident. The effect of this translation from one medium to another prompts a sense that the viewer is experiencing two different, autonomous texts (each production is shaped by its own plot) that nonetheless evince a mutual affinity as sure as it is subtle.
Full-text available
Versión pre-print, publicada online con permiso de Comunicación Social 1 3. Relato fílmico frente a relato serial: los casos de Fargo y Hannibal Alberto Nahum García Martínez (Universidad de Navarra) Desde finales de los años noventa, el relato televisivo ha sufrido un terremoto que ha convertido a la televisión en "una máquina perfecta de contar historias".(39) Aunque la "Complex TV"(40) actual encuentre precedentes en los avances de Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87) o Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-91), fue el éxito global de The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007) el que más decisivamente contribuyó a generar el círculo virtuoso de lo que se ha dado en llamar la Tercera Edad Dorada de la ficción televisiva. La historia del mafioso de New Jersey pavimentó el camino para una nueva forma de narración televisiva: más sofisticada estéticamente, más atrevida temáticamente y dirigida a un espectador más educado narratológicamente. Desde perspectivas complementarias-en ocasiones, incluso opuestas-series como) han contribuido a que la teleserialidad se haya convertido en un vehículo privilegiado para narrar historias de largo recorrido. Este capítulo pretende analizar las características esenciales de la narrativa televisiva contemporánea para compararlas con las del largometraje cinematográfico tradicional. En consecuencia, explicaremos en primer lugar las diferencias que la ficción televisiva y fílmica tienen en cuanto a unidad narrativa y progresión dramática: la duración textual, el tiempo de consumo y la combinación de la "anthology plot" y la "running plot". En segundo lugar, examinaremos los conceptos de adaptación y remake, en los que tanto la memoria como la originalidad juegan un papel crucial para el éxito de cualquier derivación diegética. Tras aclarar el marco teórico, aplicaremos la teoría al análisis de dos series de televisión recientes basadas en largometrajes de éxito: la primera temporada de Fargo (FX, 2014-), una suerte de remake-secuela de la película de los hermanos Coen del año 1995; y las tres de Hannibal (NBC, 2013-15), un reboot de la franquicia de El silencio de los corderos (The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme, 1991) que intenta llenar los huecos previos al nacimiento del personaje en la novela El dragón rojo, de Thomas Harris.
This chapter examines how American intellectuals such as Norman Mailer critiqued the narrowness of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism in their existentially tinged works, often while denying their allegiance to a European tradition that was ostensibly being surpassed by the rising American superpower. It also considers how American thinkers and artists embraced existentialism and viewed African Americans as living under the tyranny of violence that, oddly, translated into a particular form of existential freedom. The chapter first describes three periods of existential musing in America before discussing the flourishing of existentially inflected writing in America during the post-Hiroshima period. In particular, it analyzes Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro” as an example of existentialism in American literature. It also looks at how existentialism entered the realms of psychology and theology, along with the work of Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. While the networks continued to chase the lowest common denominator, a wave of new shows on cable channels dramatically stretched television's narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition. Combining deep reportage with cultural analysis and historical context, Brett Martin recounts the rise and inner workings of a genre that represents not only a new golden age for TV, but also a cultural watershed. Difficult Men features extensive interviews with all the major players, including David Chase, David Simon, David Milch, and Alan Ball; in addition to other writers, executives, directors and actors. Martin delivers never-before-heard story after story, revealing how cable television became a truly significant and influential part of our culture.
Neither a defense nor a denunciation of the postmodern, it continues Hutcheon’s previous projects in studying formal self-consciousness in art, but adds to this both a historical and ideological dimension.
This history of British and American television drama since 1970 charts the increased transnationalisation of the two production systems. From The Forsyte Saga to Roots to Episodes, it highlights the close relationship that drives innovation and quality on both sides of the Atlantic.