The first time I started watching FX’s Fargo, I didn’t know what to expect and, even after a few episodes, didn’t really know what I was watching. A TV show based on a movie: Is it a remake? A reboot? A reimagining? The show itself gave few clues, beyond the fact that the tone, setting and characters mirrored elements of the Coen brothers’ 1996 masterpiece of hotdish film noir. There’s a frustrated milquetoast whose wife ends up dead, a female police officer whose tenacity belies her mild-mannered appearance, a dark agent of chaos, and many other variations and refractions on elements and themes from the movie. I abandoned it a few episodes in, but after all the critical acclaim the second season received I decided to dive back in.
So as the New Orleans Pelicans put the Minnesota Timberwolves through the wood chipper last night, I began to think about how the current pop culture obsession with the reboot and the remake might be influencing how we think about rebuilding teams in the NBA.
A bunch of current and upcoming shows that seem like remakes or reboots — The X-Files, Twin Peaks and, as it turns out, Fargo — aren’t really remakes or reboots at all. They exist in a contiguous universe with the source material. This only becomes apparent in Fargo when [SPOILERS] we see self-proclaimed Supermarket King Stavros Milos discover the money that the movie’s Carl Showalter buried next to a fence on a remote stretch of highway and marked with a snow scraper. The thing about shows like this, though, is that the fictional universes they exist in set up parameters for how to make new stories inside them. We often fall into the same kind of work when it comes to basketball.
We are obsessed with figuring out which other player a new player is like. Is Andrew Wiggins going to be the next LeBron James? Or is he Scottie Pippen? Or on a more measured scale: Is his ceiling Jeff Green? Paul George? Gerald Green? Someone whose last name doesn’t start with “G”? Karl-Anthony Towns’ impressive rookie year stats compare favorably to the rookie years of players like David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal? Is it possible he’s some kind of Frankenstein-esque combination of all of them? OH MY GOD. Last night he faced Anthony Davis and his numbers are actually BETTER than Davis’ his rookie year and Davis is the next transcendent talent so that makes Towns …
You get the drift. This extends to teams and parts of teams as well. Is Wiggins/Towns the next Kobe/Shaq or the next Marbury/Garnett? Are they thus doomed to blow themselves apart and as such are we only trying to figure out if they’re going to win a championship before that happens? With Wiggins, Towns and Zach LaVine all on rookie scale contracts, how much does this Timberwolves team look like the Oklahoma City Thunder team that had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden? Can we expect them to make the same kind of leap next year that that team did in Harden’s sophomore year? And is Scott Brooks available to make a cameo in this reboot of the Oklahoma City Thunder model?
All these questions make it seem like the Timberwolves don’t currently exist in an extended universe attached to these originals so much as represent a wholesale reboot more along the lines of superhero movies like Spiderman or Batman or, perhaps most accurately, the comparatively humble workplace comedy The Office.
When the American version of The Office premiered in 2005, it sucked. The original version was achingly, wincingly British, both in how excruciatingly uncomfortable it was and how perfectly constructed its two short seasons were. Comprising just 12 episodes and two specials, the original was exceptionally well-crafted but also a kind of dead end. The characters were shallow and obnoxious — by design — and so basically incapable of sustaining storylines any more weighty than those created out of basic everyday frustration. Even the small notes of hope struck in the Christmas special finale felt almost like a betrayal of the series’ cold black heart. How did the American series at first try to sell this to a population reared on the goofy heartwarming model of sitcom presented by Everybody Loves Raymond or Home Improvement?
By completely recycling every joke and beat from the British series’ first two episodes, more or less. Tim becomes Jim, Dawn becomes Pam and David Brent becomes Michael Scott. There’s even a fat guy in accounting, but he’s named Kevin instead of Keith! Precisely none of it worked. The original show hinged on people doing awful, embarrassing, cringeworthy things while pretending like none of it was happening, but that approach was so irrevocably English that it just couldn’t work in a Pennsylvania paper company.
If the American version of The Office was going to succeed as a long-running series, it was going to have to figure out to take the elements it had and make them work on their own terms. Amazingly, they did it. Tim’s pranks on Gareth in the original felt like cries of desperation, a futile attempt to pull the thinnest entertainment out of a rotten situation. Jim’s pranks on Dwight became nearly operatic performances and showed how the small stuff could actually make life better. The robust backstory that filled out Dwight’s character turned him into the kind of three-dimensional counterweight to Jim that Gareth never was to Tim. And Steve Carell’s excellent work as Michael Scott turned him from a poor photocopy of Ricky Gervais’ impossibly self-absorbed and venal David Brent into someone who was outwardly cocky and insufferable but only because of how poorly his soft heart dealt with the slings and arrows of his meager life.
The first season of The Office was all about feeling this stuff out, about seeing where they could push out the edges, where they couldn’t, and how these characters could go from reboots to real. Following up a gritty, tough win over the Chicago Bulls with this blowout to the Pelicans makes this Wolves team feel like that first season of The Office. There are flashes of what it’s going to become, but one flash doesn’t mean the thing is headed in the right direction forevermore. We’re going to keep speculating about who the individual players most resemble, and what that resemblance means for what the team as a whole looks like or reminds us of. But the Wolves won’t be there until they get past trying to be something and start being the thing itself.