If a television industry luminary is boarding a plane this time of year, chances are they are flying somewhere sunny and hot, perhaps with a few piña coladas in the forecast. But for Warren Littlefield, former NBC Entertainment president and the executive producer on FX’s Fargo, it’s off to Calgary, where the mercury had dwelled well below zero in recent days.
That’s where season three of Fargo is shooting, with FX eyeing a late-April premiere. Littlefield knows well, after several decades in the business, just how rare hit shows are. If it means shivering through a frigid winter in Western Canada, so be it. “We’re willing to put our bodies through what we do in Calgary to make it,” he says, “because it’s so special to us.”
Littlefield’s attempt to see an adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ quirky 1996 feature film goes back 20 years. When he was president of NBC Entertainment, overseeing the likes of Seinfeld, Friends and ER, Littlefield sought to develop Fargo for the network. The script that landed on his desk was good, he says, but not good enough. “I felt it was an iconic film, and this was a cop show for television,” Littlefield says. “I was worried that we’d disappoint the audience.”
Littlefield has had a Fargo snow globe all the while, a party favor from the film’s release. For some reason, the tchotchke followed him after he left NBC and moved on to new pursuits, always within arm’s reach.
Many years later, Littlefield approached an exceptional young writer he knew from ABC’s My Generation and asked him about taking on a certain passion project. “[Noah Hawley] was the only writer I talked to about Fargo,” says Littlefield. “He wasn’t afraid.”
Littlefield offers a host of reasons why Fargo shines on the smaller screen. He singles out Hawley, who’s also behind FX’s Marvel Comics drama Legion. That Littlefield, Hawley and John Cameron take their time with the project, with 10-episode runs and a lengthy hiatus between seasons, keeps quality high.
Perhaps most important, Fargo strikes the right balance of drama and comedy. “In a world where there’s a number of good comedies, and a lot of great drama, we occupy this space that’s fairly unique,” says Littlefield.
Littlefield’s other series include The Handmaid’s Tale, which debuts on Hulu in late April. He raves about This Is Us, but outside of sports and news, does not spend much time on broadcast TV. Nor does Littlefield miss his former life as network brass, though he admits it’s tough to have someone else decide whether a project he believes wholeheartedly in lives or dies.
In Fargo’s case, that’s John Landgraf and his deputies. Littlefield says the FX Networks CEO is able to put aside his myriad responsibilities as network chief to dedicate his full attention to scripts. “You realize when you engage in a creative conversation with John, how much time he’s spent with what the writer has put on the page,” says Littlefield.
To be sure, Fargo will have a hard time reaching the high bar it has set for itself. Littlefield says the cast and producers recognize the challenge. That means tough days ahead on the frozen tundra. “There may be piña coladas in my future, but I don’t see it yet,” says Littlefield. “I see snow.”
Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.
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