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The ambitious and sublime limited series Fargo on FX may have to overcome two small obstacles before viewers tap into the eminence of its darkness and humor. First, fans of the acclaimed 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen might wonder why in the hell anyone would want to “remake” it into a series (though it was attempted but never launched at least twice on network television after the film came out). And those who never saw the movie might be wondering what the hell the whole thing is about.
Both are easy to answer — which moves each group closer to actually watching the 10-part anthology and enjoying its deliciously wicked take on evil.
First off, series creator Noah Hawley, a novelist and TV writer (The Unusuals, My Generation, Bones) set out to put the spirit of the movie into a completely different story for television — where characters mirrored but were not copies of those in the film. The Coen brothers were not involved in the beginning, but were impressed by Hawley’s script and then the finished pilot, so they’re now on board as executive producers, in full support.
And for those who didn’t see the film — rectify that, pronto — it’s best to approach this version of Fargo as you would any dark drama, but know that what unfolds is less a whodunit than an exploration into the art of telling a story about the dark things people do while also making every other step in that journey hilarious or, at least comically twisted.
Hawley’s version is part homage and also something very new — in a future episode there’s a wink to the original that cleverly helps put things in motion for this new take. Fargo also very much relies on the concept of “Minnesota nice” — how the locals are overly friendly, self-deprecating, use brevity in their descriptions and are perhaps polite to a fault (or at least it might appear that way when evil wanders into their snowy confines and threatens to use that niceness against them).
The Coen brothers used politeness and goodness and the small pleasures in life as a kind of shield against the depravity of man, telling a story both bloody and bleak but shot through with dry humor — and Hawley has wisely kept that tradition alive here. (Neither the Coens nor Hawley ever try to make fun of Minnesotans or their famous accents — only the quirky characters themselves who inhabit the various threads of the story.)
Fargo revolves around Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), an insurance agent in the small town of Bemidji, where the story is set. Meek Lester’s been picked on his whole life and tolerated it with self-deprecation. But something is building up, and when childhood bully Sam Hess sends him to the hospital (accidentally), Lester meets Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a dangerous drifter, killer and a man who takes pleasure in toying with people. Lorne tells Lester that he needs to stand up for himself, that life is beating him down. Say the word and I’ll kill Sam for you, Lorne tells Lester. In the trademark fumbling and verbal stops and starts that fuel Fargo, Lester inadvertently gives the go-ahead.
And we’re off.
Like the original film, Fargo is essentially without mystery. The point of Fargo is not to solve a whodunit. In that sense, there are no spoilers because there’s not supposed to be spoilers. Lester, perhaps fueled by the darkness of Lorne, finally snaps at his overbearing wife who nags him incessantly, killing her with a hammer. Shocked by his ability to lash out, Lester calls Lorne to help him mop up — and even more hell breaks loose.
Local police officer Molly Solverson (the wonderful Allison Tolman) and the rest of the mostly ineffectual Bemidji police force are now on the case, including Deputy Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk). In nearby Duluth, police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), who has been raising his young daughter as a single father, comes face to face with evil — a traffic stop of Malvo — and must make a decision about what’s important in life.
Although Fargo is funnier (and just plainly more fun) than it is overtly dramatic, what the series does well is address the notion of good vs. evil in small, potently telling ways. The Malvo-Grimly scene is almost a modern-day Grim Reaper moment, where a good man unmistakably catches a glimpse of darkness, but is given a chance to consider an action before taking it. Either way, he might not recover from the decision.
The cast on Fargo is superb, but none more so than Thornton, who is absolutely magnetic as the calm killer with a penchant for wry observation. The killing of Hess gets the attention of the Fargo syndicate (trucking is dangerous, people) and they send down two contract killers to find the person who did it and dispose of them. Encapsulating everything that is joyously weird about Fargo, the killers are the dangerous — and deaf — Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) and his partner and translator, Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg).
The four episodes that FX sent are a testament to Hawley’s bold belief that he could tackle such an original piece of cinema and make it work on the small screen (Hawley wrote all 10 episodes. A second season, which he has already started thinking about, will be another true crime story featuring an entirely different cast.)
Wonderfully absurd moments abound (particularly Sam’s awful boys and their mother, Gina, played by Kate Walsh). Gina, a former stripper, just wants the insurance money from Lester so she can flee Minnesota — after admitting that she made a stupid mistake marrying Sam when she was 19: “Now here I am in the Yukon with my two mongoloid sons.” Says Lester, being polite: “They’re not so bad.” Gina: “I’ve taken shits I’ve wanted to live with more than them.”
Through the living room window, one boy accidentally shoots the other in the backside with an arrow.
Adam Bernstein, who directed the first two episodes, sets up a recurring motif of using windows behind characters where something (usually funny or awful) is happening. Randall Einhorn directed the third and fourth episodes and continues Bernstein’s use of the white-out snow conditions to convey Minnesota’s desolate, depressing and remote sense of confinement (though it was shot in Canada). Fargo also effectively uses ground-level wide shots of blowing snow and dark-clothed characters traipsing about, contrasting against the backdrop — doing bad deeds in God’s country.
There are excellent supporting roles throughout — from Keith Carradine as Molly’s retired cop father, Lou, who now runs a diner, to Oliver Platt‘s “supermarket king” being blackmailed and Glenn Howerton‘s Don Chumph, the bronzer-obsessed personal trainer to Bemidji’s housewives. Later we’ll see Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as well. Already I want a separate series that just follows around Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers.
But for all the humor that cuts through Fargo, Hawley makes sure to stay true to what the Coen brothers insisted throughout the original film — that even in the blinding white of nice Minnesota, darkness will inevitably come to town. Carradine has a telling scene as he talks to daughter Molly, remembering how he worried about her so much as a little girl (“I carry a gun,” she reminds him). As he tells her a story, the intent mimics exactly what Hanks’ Grimley character is going through with his young daughter. Carradine’s Lou, still with a cop’s mind, tells Molly that on the one hand she’ll see “general scofflawing” in her job, but “then there’s the kind of thing you’re looking at now.”
“Which is?” Molly asks.
“If I’m right — savagery. Pure and simple.”
Lou tells Molly — echoing the “Minnesota nice” mantra — that it’s important not to look too hard into the bleakness of lost souls. “You need to see what’s good in the world. Because if you don’t, how are you going to live?”
In Fargo, it’s how the savagery comes face to face with the sweetness — and how it’s depicted on both sides. It’s less about the particulars of the dirty deeds than it is in the acknowledgement that they exist — even in Bemidji, Minn.
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