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January 11, 2017

The Coen Brothers Return to the Western with Their First TV Project

Jumping on the (covered) bandwagon of Auteur TV.

Yesterday, Variety broke the news that Joel and Ethan Coen are developing their first-ever television project, a miniseries set in the Old West, titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And frankly, Yee-fucking-haw!

The brothers, who have written a script and will direct, are teaming up with Annapurna Television — the small-screen offshoot of Annapurna Pictures, the folks behind The Master, Everybody Wants Some!!, and 20th Century Women, not to mention Wes Anderson’s upcoming Isle of Dogs.

It’s still early, and ridiculously little is known. The only comment from the Coens is in reference to how stoked they are to be working with Megan Ellison, owner of Annapurna Pictures, and Annapurna Television’s president Sue Naegle. The project will be produced through the brothers’ Mike Zoss Productions label, with Ellison and Naegle serving as executive producers.

With Buster Scruggs, the Coens join a growing trend of auteur-driven television. Both David Fincher (Mindhunter) and Steven Soderbergh (The Knick) have made the leap, as have David O. Russell and Woody Allen, who found a home in Amazon. And while the Coens currently have no set network for their project, we seriously doubt they’ll have difficulty finding one.

Universal Pictures

Historically, the Coens have been *cough* lukewarm on the idea of working in TV. In regards to the hit FX crime drama Fargo, on which the brothers enjoy executive producing credits and not much else, Joel remarked that they were “perfectly happy with it…just not very interested.” In the same interview with Radio Times (which came out just last year), Joel ruled out TV, commenting: “We work short…It’s just not how we think about stories.” Ethen added: “Would it be interesting to do something like that at some point? I don’t even know where you’d start.”

Luckily for us, they did find a place to start. And with six intertwining storylines and a scope “too challenging to be covered in one feature film,” Buster Scruggs sounds perfectly suited to a TV anthology series.

Annapurna’s plan is to pursue “an innovative television and theatrical integrated approach,” which is to say some portion of the series might get a theatrical release. This is fantastic news, particularly if Coen veteran cinematographer Roger Deakinsis behind the camera. The Variety report compares this dual-initiative to what had originally been planned for Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower adaptation.

Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb as bountyhunter Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona (1987)

Although the miniseries marks the brothers’ first foray to the small screen, they’re hardly strangers to the genre. It’s an expertise they capably demonstrated in both 2007’s neo-Western No Country For Old Men, and their bonafide cowboy caper True Grit. Notably, both films are unique in the Coen’s corpus in that they are direct adaptations of works from living authors, a fact that suggests both affinity and admiration.

In fact, much of the Coen’s work shares common ground with the Western, from a superficial sense of urban decay and lonely space by way of Fargo’s frigid Midwest (“Siberia with family restaurants”) — to sheriffs (your Eddie Mannix’s), and guns for hire (your Loren Visser’s) galore. More generally, characters in both Westerns and Coen films often seek fortune, in either a literal or an idealized sense. For the Coens, this usually translates to a desire to shortcut the American Dream, or something that looks like it, be that plastic surgery, owning a dry cleaning business, or just plain old wealth. It’s here that the Coens tend to to lean most into the Western beats of Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy; of crime, and precipitous punishment. It’s a rhythm you can hear when Chad Feldheimer tries his hand at extortion in Burn After Reading , or in Ed’s hair-brained scheme to blackmail his wife’s lover in The Man Who Wasn’t There. The Coens’ moral universe is defined, as in the Old West, by action and inaction — by messy, graceless decision making and the consequnces therof.

At their best, Westerns reveal the cracks in American myths of self-reliance and frontier justice; the flaws in thinking that here (in America!) you can, and deserve to have it all. I struggle to think of two filmmakers more adept at showcasing this fragility.

As of yet, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has no release date, but please, in the meantime, get hyped with me.

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