The news that a television show based on a popular movie is being developed is generally news that will elicit groans from the film community. The history of TV is littered with failed, poor quality attempts to recapture the magic of a big screen property on the small screen. When that property is something as beloved as the Coen brothers’ 1996 darkly comedic crime thriller Fargo, which won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Actress (Frances McDormand as pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson) and was nominated for several more, a movie which has a very specific tone and memorable performances, the makers of the television show are trading the brand name recognition that will bring in curious viewers for setting themselves up to fight an uphill battle in winning over those viewers, who will be looking for ways in which the show doesn’t live up to the source material.
The developers of FX’s Fargo show made things a little easier for themselves by not bringing back any of the characters from the movie, and thus not putting any actors in the awkward position of trying to duplicate the performances of others. Rather, the approach taken to the Fargo series is that it will tell, over the course of a ten episode run, another crime story set in the film’s location of the state of Minnesota. New characters, new story, but the same quirky Fargo world.
The series got its start on the night of Tuesday, April 15, with an episode entitled The Crocodile’s Dilemma.
The episode opens with the same not-quite-honest disclaimer the film did, text on the screen informing viewers that what they’re about to see is a true story, told exactly as it happened, with just the names changed at the request of the survivors. Rather than the film’s 1987, the series is set in 2006.
The first character we meet is Billy Bob Thornton as the badly coiffed Lorne Malvo, listening to the radio as he drives through the snowy winter countryside. When a herd of deer bounds across the road in front of him, Lorne accidentally hits one, crashing his car off the road, smacking his head on the steering wheel. The crash jars the car’s trunk open, and from within emerges a man in his underwear, who runs off into the woods. A very intriguing start…
We’re then introduced to Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard, a meek insurance salesman who’s not happy with his station in life. He doesn’t feel like he’s enough of a man. He’s bad at his job, he pales in comparison to his younger brother, family members are disappointed in and embarrassed of him. He’s got it so rough that, at 40 years old, he’s still bullied by the same guy who picked on him in high school. The latest occurrance of that bullying lands Lester in the emergency room with a busted nose, which puts him in the hospital waiting room just in time for a chance encounter with Lorne Malvo, there to have his head wound looked at. Malvo strikes up a conversation with Lester, seeming very interested in his life.
The simple-yet-weird interaction between the two men is the catalyst for a story that includes murder (both professional and cold-blooded), frozen bodies, insurance pay-offs, and references to a gun-running crime syndicate based out of Fargo, North Dakota.
At first, I was concerned that writer Noah Hawley was going to be trying too hard to imitate the way the Coens wrote the Minnesota-based characters, but as the episode went on this Fargo took on more of its own identity. While the show still includes the style of Minnesotan speech the Coens established and sometimes uses the accent for laughs, it’s not overbearing. Gradually, it becomes clear that the show is, like the movie, capable of perfectly balancing a mixture of strangeness, darkness, and laughs with exchanges that delve into the mundanity of the characters’ daily lives.
Lives that are turned upside down and destroyed by Lorne Malvo.
Thornton is an unnerving delight to watch as Malvo, a hitman by trade who is taking a little break and entertaining himself by screwing with these people in his downtime. At times it’s hard to tell if the character is way into karmic retribution or if he’s just an impish manipulator. He expertly reads every character he comes across, then finds a way to cause trouble for them. With his bad haircut and the almost otherworldly way in which he deals with people and situations, Malvo is sort of reminiscent of a character from another Coen brothers movie, Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Like Chigurh, Malvo is mingling with characters who are not equipped to comprehend him.
This premiere episode was packed with twists and turns, with situations developing further than you would expect for them to go in a first episode, with characters you figure will stick around for the duration getting removed from the equation in a shocking manner. Because of how far it goes, it hooked me. I have to see how things progress from here, what this is all building to, and I now have confidence that this show is going to be able to stand apart from the film and exist as a very interesting story in its own right.
Fargo: The Series will be airing on Tuesday nights at 10pm on FX, and I will be watching.