I found Genette’s chapters on paratexts useful in thinking about the term beyond what I learned of it in my undergrad literary theory course. Even though the focus is exclusively on print texts, I found myself thinking more about televisual paratexts, trying to see what I could connect to the Fargo TV series and my own interests in Netflix comedy special paratexts.
This quote from Genette stuck out to me as I was thinking about how to classify some of the paratextual elements of Fargo beyond the “where? when? how? to whom? and to do what?” (Genette 4) approach, “The functions of the paratext therefore constitute a highly empirical and highly diversified object that must be brought into existence inductively, genre by genre and species by species. The only significant regularities one can introduce into this apparent contingency are to establish these relations of subordination between function and status and thus pinpoint various sorts of functional types, as well, reduce the diversity of practices and messages to some fundamental and highly recurrent themes.” (Genette 13). The genre of “TV viewed on streaming services” (I’m watching Fargo on my Hulu account) has many unique paratextual elements which I’m sure have been written about elsewhere, and then the Fargo TV series itself can be viewed as its own species, with individual seasons or episodes being perhaps subspecies. For this short essay, I’ll focus on Fargo 202, “Before the Law” to try and list some of the paratextual observations I have made and hopefully gesture towards inductively deriving some sort of functional type.
I need to begin by trying to define the opening sequences as paratextual elements before going further. To even classify this sequence as an opening/title sequence goes against many older generic forms such as the copy and paste title sequence with the same theme song and no variation (think any older cartoon series). However, many recent TV series have modified the opening/title sequence in creative ways like Fargo to diversify it to have meta-textual elements to the episode or the season (Better Call Saul, Bojack Horseman). One could contest that these newer, savvier opening sequences are not paratextual because they are so embedded into the text because of the production. However, I would say that they are paratextual by virtue of their repeating qualities that frame the episode. In Fargo (at least 2 episodes in) the opening sequence features a nondiegetic soundtrack, the opening text, split screen edits, and an eventual title sequence. These commonalities codify these sequences as title sequences.
The opening text that appears onscreen is the paratextual element that interests me the most. This writing seems to serve as the first indication of the show’s opening/title sequence, since it has occurred in both 201 and 202 with music accompaniment leading up to the reveal of the title (in 201 it comes after the cold open). As a refresher, the text reads, “This is a true story. True. The events took place in Minnesota in 1979. 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. An MGM/FXP Production” written out slowly between scenes with nondiegetic typewriter clicks. As discussed in class, this writing is nonsense, as the stories are fictional. As an uninformed viewer, I would have bought this as I did with the film version, and so I guess Genette would classify this as private paratext? At the very least, including this information at the beginning of each episode reminds viewers either to consider (wrongly) that the show is about an (un)true story, or, remind them that it is a farcically violent romp through the Midwest. As opposed to the film version where this paratextual element only occurs once, having the TV version repeat it, and repeat it as an indication of the show’s opening, amps up the functionality of this paratextual element.
The nondiegetic soundtrack is one of the other main indicators of the opening/title sequence and one that has perhaps the most “illocutionary force” (10) on that particular episode. For example, in 202 the song is “Reunion” by Bobbie Gentry, which depicts a fraught family reunion where multiple parties attempt to appeal to the Mama of the family. The song itself is satirical in that the bulk of it describes petty fights between seemingly younger family members such as hair pulling, but then the speaker states, “It’s first time ever that the family been together. It’s so nice that we all get along so well.” As a paratextual element the song has more force as it sets up one of the main conflicts of the episode: who will lead the Gerhardt family? In the episode we see the matriarch, Floyd, negotiating effectively with the rival gang, only to be challenged by her son Dodd solely due to her femininity. We know from the previous episode that the siblings of the family squabble much like the characters in the song, only instead of pulling hair, it’s questioning Rye’s masculinity and ability to do his job. Through all of this, Floyd (Mama) is the one who mediates these conflicts and is likely keeping the family unified, as is often assumed through gendered roles of motherhood.
Wowee there’s so much more to say!