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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: will the Coen brothers suit television?

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The Coen brothers have created some of the most critically acclaimed films of modern times but their latest project sees them take to the small screen with western series, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

The departure from their well-established usual routine begs the question: will the maestros of the silver screen suit the short-form television format?

High production value television series are very much in vogue; the likes of Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Walking Dead and Stranger Things have all provided consistent and arresting entertainment that came much closer to the big-budget thrills of cinema than many of their predecessors. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs represents the Coens' attempt to take their slice of the pie.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was originally conceived as a full feature film, but it was decided that the scope and ambition of the plot couldn’t be fully realised in film format. As a result the plan for the series was born and reportedly the plot will weave together six separate storylines in what sounds like a complex and epic western project. 

Joel and Ethan will both write and direct the series and have previous western experience to draw on in the form of their 2011 film True Grit, which was a re-make of the John Wayne classic of the same name. That experience bodes well for their western TV venture, as do the frontier-esque narratives present in some of their other films, (think - No Country for Old Men, Fargo, O Brother Where art Thou).

The themes at play in this new work will not be unfamiliar then. What will be unfamiliar however, is the hour-at-a-time writing format. The Coens will have to adapt their usual style of writing to provide the necessary, recurring peaks and troughs that carry a television series and offer it consistency as well as hooking fans and making the end of each episode as impactful as the last. Their status as master-craftsmen, in terms of script writing, will give fans confidence of their ability to deliver in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

However Joel and Ethans' critics will be quick to point to the mixed reviews that their latest work, Hail, Caesar! received. The Telegraph described the film as a ‘limply plotted… screwball stumble’ and its plot, or narrative arc, is certainly where it falls down. Having frequently introduced comedic elements to their films, the emphasis in Hail, Caesar! is pushed too far towards comedy and while the film does contain some great laughs, the plot suffers. The Coen’s real strength comes in their more dramatic outings - here’s hoping Buster Scruggs is one of them.

If it is, the western genre is once again ripe as a vehicle for popular drama. Following a sparse period for films about the American West Quentin Tarantino essentially resurrected the genre with his films Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Now Westworld’s popularity is entrenching the presence of the western in new television and film and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is another step in the right direction for the previously hobbled genre. 

At this early stage and with very little information The Ballad of Buster Scruggs looks promising, one of the few question marks over the series being the Coen’s last outing Hail, Caesar! The Hollywood studio-drama didn’t instil confidence, but fans will be keen to cling to the memory of Oscar winning classics No Country for Old Men and Fargo as well as the Coen’s memorable Old West outing True Grit.

The clues we have about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a serialised western with a plot too complex to be conveyed in a single film, do point towards a return to dramatic themes over comedic ones. That would certainly be a good foundation and a comforting thought for Coen fans.

Let’s hope for a return to dramatic form for the dynamic duo and another memorable step in the revival of the western genre.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs currently has no scheduled broadcast date. 

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