With the word “cinematic” constantly being thrown around to describe television shows these days, it seems logical that TV would look to the world of film for ideas for new series. In a continuation of a recent trend, TV poaches another prominent film actor in Billy Bob Thornton for an adaption (but not really an adaption) of the 1996 Coen Brothers classic, “Fargo.”
Right from the start, it is important to note that this is not a direct remake or re-imagining of the story seen in ’96. It is, rather, a separate, limited-series that takes place in the same area of Minnesota, around the same types of people, with a similar mix of tone of the darkly funny and the violent. Sure, there are a few callbacks to the film. The logo of fictional town of Bemidji sports an image of Paul Bunyan like the statue seen in Brainerd in the film, there are plenty of “on account of’s” and “aw geez’s” and a certain scene in a later episode which fans of the film will instantly call back to the film.
As a pilot episode, “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” serves as a nice jumping off point for the series. We are introduced to Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) who is an insurance salesman who is constantly nagged upon by his wife. While he isn’t as frantic, funny and quite frankly as brilliant as William H. Macy was Jerry Lundegaard from the film, the characters are pretty similar in their construction. Freeman is pretty good here, able to portray Lester with a sense of built up frustration, but with a resistance to sticking up for himself. He occasionally has struggles maintaining the particular Minnesota accent, but its a problem shared with the rest of the cast who occasionally fade in and out of it. After a rather embarrassing run in with an old high school bully, Lester meets a drifter named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) in the waiting room of a hospital. There, they have a conversation that leads to Lester’s life being turned upside down. It should be noted that Thornton is absolutely brilliant in his role as Malvo. He is sinister, cruel, calculated, and loves to stir the pot and mess with people. He is easily the best part of every episode, and especially fun to watch when he embraces an alter ego in Episode 4. While there is no real direct comparison to “Fargo” the movie, his character design is definitely more Peter Storemare than Steve Buscemi. What is impressive about the pilot episode is that it starts decently and unassumingly enough as a table setter and gets dark in a hurry. By the end of the episode, the audience is virtually blindsided with multiple brutal scenes in a row, setting forth the events of the rest of the season.
It is apparent by the 2nd or 3rd episode, however, that this is a massive cast of characters, and the show begins to feel a little overpopulated. We meet Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), who is the Maggie Gunderson counterpart from the film, and a host of other characters ranging from a supermarket king played by Oliver Platt and a police officer from another area of Minnesota in Colin Hanks. Still, the most interesting storyline presented to us in the first few episodes is the interaction between Lester and Lorne, yet they are both off doing their own things (albeit some of them amusing) and hardly interact in the back half of the four episodes that I have seen. Of course, I’m sure that at some point during these 10 episodes, stories will intersect and everything will become central, but if the beginning of the series is any indication, there will be some detours along the way to a crash course conclusion.
With a similar tone, setting, character design, and of course, name, it is difficult to not compare the TV product to the film, which is vastly superior in every aspect. While you won’t find the continued police adventures of Maggie Gunderson, “Fargo” is more of a spiritual cousin of the film that will bring you glimpses into the humorous and sometimes frightening environment, but ultimately make you pine for the Coen Brothers classic. It may not be the best thing currently on TV, but Freeman’s and especially Thornton’s performance and an interesting set up have me intrigued enough to continue watching.