“Fargo” is not a film that begs for a continuation or a remake. The movie, which was released in 1996, is a part of modern cinema’s canon.
It was nominated for seven Oscars and won two of them, including a win for star Frances McDormand, and it was the first major critical and commercial success for directors and writers Ethan and Joel Coen, who have carried that success forward with films like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “No Country for Old Men.”
In many ways, “Fargo” defies imitation. Its peculiar brand of dark comedy and a small-town crime-gone-wrong plot is certainly in keeping with the Coen brothers’ idiosyncratic style, but no one else has ever managed to capture that same tone successfully.
Yet people keep trying to do so.
In 1997, a TV pilot was filmed which directly adapted the movie’s plot to the small screen, with Edie Falco in McDormand’s role, but it never made it to the broadcast stage.
Today, FX is airing another television show called “Fargo” with the Coen brothers’ blessing, but without their creative involvement. The recognizable title is sure to attract some viewers, but it also places the show in the difficult position of having to prove itself not only as a standalone work of TV, but also to prove why the connection is necessary.
Thankfully, the first two episodes suggest “Fargo” is well on its way to proving its value. Series creator Noah Hawley, best known for his work as a writer on “Bones,” has said that the show will follow the season-long anthology style of “American Horror Story” and “True Detective,” telling an entirely new story for each year it airs. This structure gives Hawley and his writers the freedom to aggressively pick and choose which elements of the original story to retain.
In broad terms, the show similarly recounts a tale of a violent crime disturbing a small Minnesota town, but the specifics are largely different.
In that same respect, some of the show’s characters are transplanted from the movie, while others are new creations. Martin Freeman plays nebbish and put-upon insurances salesman Lester Nygaard, clearly patterned on William H. Macy’s character in the original film, and Allison Tolman’s policy deputy Molly Solverson fills McDormand’s role. The film’s criminal duo, played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, are re-imagined as agents for a shady trucking corporation, but serve a similar plot purpose.
At first, all these similarities between show and movie appear to be cynically designed fanservice. The first two-thirds of the pilot feel like a retread of the film, softened slightly for TV. It’s a pleasant enough retread, and the show does an excellent job of capturing the film’s original tone and sense of humor, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The third act, however, takes the darkness underneath the surface of that setup and brings it crashing into the forefront, in a way that will force the subsequent nine episodes of the season to move away from the blueprint of the film. This shift isn’t exactly a divergence from the source material thematically, but it suggests that the writers and directors on the show understand what made the film “Fargo” so good.
Part of what made the movie unique was its detours into gruesome violence—the body being shoved into a woodchipper being the most indelible image—which sat alongside the more lighthearted moments without causing tonal whiplash. In large part, the success of the pilot’s third-act twist is owed to the show’s major addition to the film’s cast of characters, criminal-for-hire Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton.
In terms of the Coen brothers’ filmography, Malvo feels less like someone from “Fargo” and more like “No Country For Old Men’s” terrifying agent of chaos and violence, Anton Chigurh. That similarity seems intentional, considering how Thornton’s bowl-cut echoes the similar haircut Javier Bardem wore to play Chigurh.
Of course, the humorless Anton Chigurh would feel utterly out-of-place in the pleasant Minnesota of “Fargo,” so Malvo is shifted slightly from his blueprint, becoming more of a trickster figure. Thornton is tremendous in the role, playing a man simultaneously exasperated and amused by everyone around him. Malvo is the type of character who needs to play off other people, so it helps that the rest of the cast is similarly good. Freeman and Tolman, as the show’s other two leads, both do an excellent job of capturing the distinctive Minnesota accent without turning to caricature, and the supporting roles are stacked with recognizable character actors like Keith Carradine, Oliver Platt and Bob Odenkirk.
The first two episode see “Fargo” in a table-setting mode, establishing characters and relationships so that they can be deepened and torn down as the season builds, which means it’s hard to judge how the conflict will play out, or how the show will take advantage of the close-ended structure of the season.
At times, the different characters’ plot lines in these episodes feel disconnected, and while we can presume they’ll gradually intertwine, that remains to be seen. The most frustrating of those comes in the character played by Colin Hanks, who, despite being a regular on the show, has only interacted with another major character once at this point. There’s also the broader question of what value there is in a “Fargo” TV show for people who haven’t seen the movie. It certainly isn’t necessary to be familiar with the film in order to understand the show, but it enhances the experience.
The concept of “Fargo” inspires skepticism in its viewers. That being said, anyone who can overcome that apprehension is in for a charming time.