When I learned that FX was creating a series based on the movie Fargo, my reaction wasn’t enthusiastic. The Coen brothers’ 1996 film is a classic, nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and resulting in Oscar wins for Frances McDormand (Best Actress) and Joel and Ethan Coen (Best Original Screenplay).
Most importantly, the story — involving a bungled kidnapping plot and ensuing homicides investigated by a small-town police chief — had a very clear arc. There was nothing open-ended about the ending that might lead one to think “I wouldn’t mind seeing where else this could go.” Nor did Fargo seem like a movie that would benefit from a remake or different interpretation, especially expanded into a television series. And trying to create something that resembled a Coen brothers’ work would surely result in a bad product.
That was a lazy, knee-jerk reaction from me. I feel like the marketing for the show made that easy. Martin Freeman’s character looked like William H. Macy’s from the movie. Billy Bob Thornton appeared to be Steve Buscemi. And an actress I didn’t recognize would be playing McDormand’s role. Surely, there was some attempt to tap into familiarity there.
Yet if I’d taken the time to do any research or just read a little bit about the series, I would’ve discovered that the series isn’t a straight adaptation or expansion of the original film. It may take place in the same world that Coen brothers created. It may carry the same tone and sensibilities. But the show would be its own thing, not a rehash of the movie.
Fortunately, thanks to Mike Hale’s preview in the New York Times and reviews from favorite TV critics like Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, I was enlightened shortly before Fargo‘s pilot episode premiered on FX last Tuesday (April 15).
The first episode — which you can currently watch on iTunes, Amazon Prime and On Demand, and will be available on Hulu next week — builds slowly over its 90 minutes. But stick with it, because the story goes off the rails in the best way possible during that last half-hour, setting up the rest of the series to come.
We’re introduced to Freeman’s Lester Nygaard, a bullied and hen-pecked insurance salesman whose existence is rife with constant disappointment and humiliation. Is that pushing him toward a breaking point? Thornton’s Lorne Malvo is a hitman who meets Lester and is more than willing to nudge him over the edge. The question is whether Malvo just can’t stand seeing a guy like Lester willingly accept the shit life throws in his face or if he’s like the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises, someone who just wants to watch the world burn. Regardless, Malvo gets Lester to consider possibilities he never has before.
“Your problem is you’ve spent your whole life thinking there are rules,” Malvo says. “There aren’t.”
It’s one of two great lines Thornton is given in this episode. The other comes when his character intimidates a police officer (played by Colin Hanks) in another Minnesota town into letting him go without a speeding ticket. Don’t try this yourself unless you can come off as bizarre as Billy Bob Thornton.
(Malvo is such a discomforting weirdo that I like to imagine that Thornton isn’t doing much acting. He seems entirely capable of striking up a conversation with a stranger in an emergency room waiting area and asking why he doesn’t just kill the guy bullying him.)
At the risk of repeating what so many others have been saying, the revelation of the cast is Allison Tolman, who plays Bemidji, Minn. policeman Holly Solverson. Holly and police chief Vern Thurman are investigating one of Malvo’s homicides, which will eventually lead to bigger crimes and grisly results. Because she looks sort of frumpy and has the “Aw, geez” demeanor caricatured in both the film and TV versions of Fargo, it’s easy to initially write Holly off as a doofus deputy tagging along with the more accomplished cop.
But as they begin to investigate that first murder, Holly’s mentor can see that she has the instincts of a good detective, making connections and devising theories that none of the other loafs in their department could come up with together. Thurman tells Holly she’ll make a good police chief someday and her face lights up. You can see her gain a sense of purpose and affirmation in that moment, which is totally endearing. Later on, we also see a defiant side as her father tries to talk her out of her chosen career.
Holly seems likely to be the breakout character of this show, the one whose story we’ll most want to follow as Fargo progresses through its 10 episodes. Don’t be surprised if you begin to hear plenty more about Tolman in the weeks to come, either.
Another promising aspect to this show is that this story and character building isn’t going to establish any sort of serial mythology that will be dragged out for seasons to come. The show’s creator and writer, Noah Hawley, intends Fargo to be an anthology, like American Horror Story or True Detective. So the story will have an ending. (Though as we saw with True Detective, that won’t necessarily stop fans and critics from speculating how that one-season story will wind up.)
Perhaps this is another knee-jerk reaction and Fargo won’t hold up for its next nine episodes. I just hope that its ultimate resolution is as good as the promising beginning we’ve been given.