FX has another top notch show on its hands with Fargo (Tuesdays, 10/9C) – an expansion of the Coen Brothers’ hit movie. By expansion, I mean it tells an entirely new story, with all new characters, in the Minnesota of the movie – and it’s so good it earned the Coen Brothers’ blessing.
Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton, The Baytown Outlaws) is in Bemidji, Minnesota on a job for an unnamed criminal enterprise. Lester Nyygard (Martin Freeman, Sherlock) is a Bemidji native – a mousy, henpecked milquetoast who hates his job (insurance salesman). After some small preamble – Malvo having a car accident which leads to the nearly naked man in his truck getting free and running off; Lester getting beat up by the guy who bullied him all through high school – the two cross paths in the local hospital.
Malvo tweaks Lester’s manhood with some careful verbal digs; suggests he would have killed the guy, and wrangles an almost request from Lester to kill him. Murder and general mayhem ensue (the official logline for the series premiere, The Crocodile’s Dilemma, is, ‘A rootless, manipulative man meets a small town insurance salesman and sets him on a path of destruction’). When things get messy, it falls to Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman, Sordid Lives: The Series) to do the actual investigating on the case.
Before long we’ve had occasion to meet Lester’s wife, Pearl (Kelly Holden, World Cup Comedy); his much more successful brother, Chazz (Josh Pence, Draft Day); the laid back Sheriff Thurman (Shawn Doyle, Endgame); incompetent and easily disturbed Deputy Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk, Breaking Bad); Duluth Deputy Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks, NCIS, Burning Love) and his daughter, Greta (Joey King, White House Down); Gina Hess (Kate Walsh, Private Practice), a not-so-grieving widow, Deptuy Solverson’s dad, ex-cop/café owner Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine, Damages, NCIS), and many other residents of Bemidji. And I haven’t even mentioned hitmen Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg, The Unusuals) and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard, Fringe, There Will Be Blood) – who is deaf…
The important things to know about Fargo: The Series are these: Creator and writer Noah Hawley has captured the essence of the movie perfectly; Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman are brilliant; the essence of ‘Minnesota nice’ permeates the series in the same way that it did the movie, and the plotting is as twisted and darkly comic as you would expect.
If you loved the movie, there’s a good chance you will love the series (The Coen Brothers approve so heartily that they’ve become executive producers on the show). While a couple of the characters might vaguely remind you of the leads in the movie, Freeman’s Lester is not William H. Macy’s Jerry, and Tolman’s Deputy Solverson is definitely not Frances McDormand’s Deputy Gunderson – and Thornton’s Malvo is neither Minnesotan nor nice.
While the series chronicles Lester’s descent into darkness, and Freeman is superb in the role, it’s Thornton’s Malvo who is the most fascinating character. He’s not a killer, nor is he a thief. He’s a kind of fixer who does whatever his job requires – he will kill or steal if necessary, but his job is to get things done, and/or make things go away.
We’ve seen characters that do these things before, but Malvo has something they don’t – a macabre sense of humor and a desire to mess with people’s minds. It’s his provocation that pushes Lester into doing things that he would never have contemplated before. In an upcoming episode he schools a post office worker on the difference between odd and weird in a way that is hilarious, but likely to leave the poor postal worker with a scarred psyche.
He’s more a force of nature – think Loki, or Coyote – than a person. That he gets a kick out of messing with people’s minds is just about the only indication we get that he’s a human being. He certainly scares the crap out of Deputy Grimley in their first encounter…
As a Coen Brothers fan – Fargo, True Grit and Blood Simple being my personal favorites – I was more than a bit afraid that the TV adaptation would suck. Then I saw some of the various clips/teasers FX allowed us to post and loved them. Teasers and clips, however, aren’t episodes and so I screened the four eps included in the press kit with a certain amount of anxiety – anxiety that was, it turns out, gone by the time the opening credits ran on the premiere.
Just as FX’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard in Justified captured the essence of Leonard’s writing style, Fargo captures the Coen Brothers’ style – both in terms of writing and filming. It is, as I noted above, an expansion of the world from Fargo, the film. Its sense of place and character is spot on. Its sense of pacing – editing and timing – is just right. The characters are unique in the best Coen Brothers manner. Even the cold, snowy Alberta locations feel just right.
If you were to happen on Fargo without knowing anything about the series, you just might wonder how the Coen Brothers came to be doing TV. You almost certainly wouldn’t believe it wasn’t the Coen Brothers.
My only regret in getting to see the first four episodes is that now I have to wait a month before I get to see the fifth one.
Final Grade: A+
Photos by Matthias Clamer and Chris Large/Courtesy of FX