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Revisiting Mark Frost’s Buddy Faro

In the Fall of 1998, Buddy Faro (created by Mark Frost, and starring Dennis Farina, Frank Whaley, Allison Smith, and Charles Robinson), premiered on CBS. There was some excitement about it at the time. Though it had been several years since Twin Peaks had been cancelled, there was certainly remembrance when it was in its season 1 ascendance. Farina was an established actor and, though he was rarely featured in a lead role, clearly had a following coming off of his turns in films such as Get Shorty. Whaley, too, would strike many as a recognizable face if they had seen Pulp Fiction, although for me the film that always comes to mind is Swimming with Sharks. Crime dramas were as popular then as they are now, if not more so, and thus the idea of one with a neo-noir sensibility, recognizable faces, and distinctive sense of humor—spawned from the mind of one of the creators of the inimitable Twin Peaks—probably seemed like a good bet.

Unfortunately, the show was to only last for eight episodes before it was cancelled. Five more were filmed, but never aired. Perhaps before its time, or weirdly untimely in the way that cult shows tend to be, it seems that Buddy Faro failed to find its audience. Or perhaps the network never gave it enough of a chance.

A few notes about myself seem relevant as I turn to assess this show more deeply. 1998 was the year I graduated from high school, and I remember well what the culture was like at the time—or, at least, think I do. Also, I did not see Buddy Faro as it aired, but have only come to it later, through my interest in exploring Mark Frost’s work. Honestly, I didn’t even know about it in 1998, but I’m not sure whether that means it was poorly marketed in a way that contributed to its ultimate cancellation, or if it just had to do with the level of attention I was paying to what was on television as I was eighteen and entering college.

Regardless, I find these personal details worth mentioning insofar as Buddy Faro strikes me as a show that was eminently of its time; or, rather, calling into question or parodying that which was so. I sometimes wonder if younger people who are just now discovering Twin Peaks, for example, might not realize that the idea of Julee Cruise being the house performer at a bar like the Roadhouse was weird even in the early 90s. The show clearly plays with the culture of its time, but also subverts it. Buddy Faro does the same thing, all over the place, and perhaps even more so, as it works so much at a level resembling parody.

Buddy Faro passed out drunk
Buddy’s first appearance

That is, one could easily watch the show now, I presume, and (mistakenly) think that the things in it that seem cheesy or what have you stemmed directly from the time in which it was produced. This is what we mean, I take it, when we say that something is “dated” (like Braveheart, for example): it is a product of its time in a way that makes enjoying it now virtually impossible, unless this is a matter of nostalgia. Twin Peaks clearly isn’t like that, and neither is Buddy Faro; rather, both play with the predominant tropes of television—sometimes following them, and sometimes subverting them—in a way that calls them into question and creates a certain kind of humor.

It seems that there are many who tend to attribute what is great about Twin Peaks primarily to David Lynch, and while I love Lynch’s work in general, I have always found this to be a bit unfortunate, and to involve a failure to properly acknowledge Frost’s contribution. This is something that became all the clearer to me as I watched Buddy Faro. While trying to pin down what came from Frost and what came from Lynch in Twin Peaks strikes me as a fools’ errand, insofar as I would want to say it is truly a collaboration between the two, various things in Buddy Faro got me thinking about what might be better attributed to Frost’s hand at the end of the day.

Some of these are fairly direct, such as the inclusion of a character with the last name Fusco, or the fact that Frank Whaley’s character is named Bob Jones. Jones is, of course, a common name, but there is nonetheless a moment in the first episode of Buddy Faro, when El Jefe leans towards him and says, “Mr. Jones,” that couldn’t help but make me think of the casino scene that occurs early on in Twin Peaks: The Return.

Equally, the premise of Buddy Faro involves the idea of an investigator who disappeared twenty years ago coming back. Here it happens almost too easily. PI Bob Jones is tasked with tracking Faro down on the basis of a bogus inheritance claim—it turns out it is really a matter of someone trying to find him to exact revenge—and he not only seems to do so easily enough, but Faro’s return to PI work (and competency) is so quick as to be absurd.

Buddy looks down at Tim

Apparently the man disappeared himself to Mexico back in 1978, and has spent the intervening years drunk. That’s what we are given anyway: twenty years of hiding out and being drunk. Yet the show acts as though Bob showing up and giving him a kick in the pants is sufficient to cause him to get his act together. Or maybe it is supposed to be the threat on his life, but while that could maybe explain his immediate interest in the case at hand that creates such a threat, it hardly explains his turn back to life as a PI in a more general way, taking cases from whoever might ring his phone.

I don’t take this as a flaw, however, so much as I think it is a commentary on how any number of TV shows make precisely this kind of move that wouldn’t be plausible in real life, and we just accept it. It provides a good origin story, and a background mystery about the main character to work with, and so on. Nevermind that the idea of a human being making this kind of quick turnaround is implausible: we actually really like the idea that it isn’t!

But by leaning into this as hard as Buddy Faro does, along with the way that the show acts as though being in Mexico put him on another planet or something—he has virtually no familiarity with what is going on in the world, technological developments, etc.—the show points out the absurdity of its premise at the same time as it embraces it.

Buddy Faro isn’t so much meta as it is self-aware. It plays with the existing tropes of television, but knows it is doing so, and works to subvert them. Or, ‘subvert’ might almost be too strong a term: this is really more a matter of play. The whole setup plays with the tropes of other shows, like Magnum PI, or Miami Vice. Perhaps the latter, in particular (on which Dennis Farina had a turn, for what it’s worth), insofar as El Jefe calls to mind Ricardo Tubbs. There is this whole trope of the badass black sidekick, and I suppose I could research it more and give more examples, but it seems clear to me that Buddy Faro is playing that up to hyperbolic levels; from his hair to his general demeanor. El Jefe is a boss—the boss?—to rival someone like Shaft, but put in a subordinate role. And it feels like you see this all over the place.

Equally, there is a kind of casual misogyny, or sexism, that is at times on display in the show, but in a way that I think is also subverted. Faro says and does some things with regard to women that are pretty objectionable, for example, and it is only the most charitable view that would thereby excuse them as “outdated.” Yet, I find it worth noting that this would have already have been the view in 1998, playing on Faro as having been out of it since 1978. The show engaged in a certain kind of what I think of as “90s feminism”—at least when it comes to TV shows.

What I mean is this, or this is the trope:  the (bone-headed) men presume that a woman cannot do something because she is a woman, and then she proves them wrong by coming through with something, or whatever. You see this all over the place, in the 90s; there are even examples in Star Trek: TNG, despite its futuristic setting. And maybe that’s fine, given the time, as much as it might make us cringe now.

But, again, Buddy Faro subverts this in a certain way. It is Julie Barber who solves the case in the second episode before the men do (and they won’t hear her out), and it is in light of this that she becomes a more recognized member of the team. This would all be in line with the “90s feminism” I mentioned above, but it is framed in a way that I feel puts a point on how absurd the whole thing is, as the audience gets that she is more on top of things than Buddy and Bob before they do. Just listen to the woman in the first place!

This tendency to both embrace a common TV trope and subvert it at the same time is something hard to explain, but it also seems to be quintessential when it comes to Mark Frost. We see it in Twin Peaks, as well, all over the place.  The tropes of the soap opera are played with, rather than being rejected: love triangles, amnesia, comas, identical twins!?

Early on, Buddy faces a foe upset that he wasn’t cast to play the role of Buddy Faro—another meta sort of move—and deals with a thing involving Egypt and the Pharaoh. This might seem cheesy, but I think it was intentionally so. The subtle parody of the show was likely just lost on viewers, as we once again play with the line between a tired cliche and a critique that throws an elbow at that very thing.

That is, if you had been watching Murder, She Wrote, Father Dowling Mysteries, or Diagnosis Murder, you would be fully acquainted with this kind of trope: the murderer implicates himself in his own crime through his narcissism, and so on. Buddy Faro just makes this a little more explicit, and I think it is meant to be funny.

In one of the last episodes that aired, Buddy and team take on a talk show host that seems to be a clear stand-in for Jerry Springer. Here we see a level of social criticism, as Faro calls into question the whole project in a way that makes me think of Jacoby’s segments in Twin Peaks: The Return. “The fucks are at it again!”

The gang gathers for martinis

I don’t think it is just the government that is called into question by Jacoby’s line, but a much broader thing. If you don’t remember Jerry Springer, let me remind you: this was a show that showcased those who are arguably the worst among us, on purpose, for ratings. And, Springer knew what he was doing.

I found it a bit refreshing when Buddy Faro called that into question—even at a bit of a remove. The worst among us remain, and while Jerry Springer may no longer be a staple when it comes to this kind of entertainment, the forces unleashed or harnessed by that show can easily be seen in the culture of the internet today.

Overall, Buddy Faro feels like a product of its time insofar as it relies on a case-of-the-week format. And the way it plays with the tropes of its time could be read as falling prey to the cliches associated with them. That humor is intended is obvious enough, but that this humor involves calling into question the very form of the thing that is being done?—I’m not so sure. It would be all too easy then, or now, to fail to get what Buddy Faro is trying to do.

I presume that, if the show had been allowed to run its course, we would have gotten a bit more related to Buddy’s backstory at some point, maybe even within the first season. As it stands, we did not. The show was cut off—cancelled too soon—and those of us who enjoyed it have been left hanging.

Even the eight episodes that aired are a bit hard to find (though they are available on a popular video streaming site). I presume that the remaining five still exist—filmed but not aired. Personally, I would love to see them.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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