HBO is responsible. There success with shorter-run, edgier, more explicit television series like “True Blood”, “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” has caused a shift in the television landscape. Viewers flock to these series because they are, all-in, better than just about anything you will find on network television. Still, they are better, spite the networks’ belated attempts to ‘catch-up’ with recent offerings like “Under the Dome”, “Hostages” and “Sleepy Hollow”.
Basic cable caught on early and has been enjoying success in this area for a long time. TNT regularly airs thirteen episodes of a given series, before giving them a much promoted “Summer Finale”. Practically every show on USA seems to have two seasons, with long hiatuses in between. But both of these network’s offerings are little better than a normal network. The cable network I find myself turning to most frequently, other than BBC America, is FX. They produce ten to thirteen episodes of a show, per season, give the cast and crew a break, to rest up and recharge their creative juices, and then produce another series of pretty darn good shows. “American Horror Story”, “Justified”, “Damages”, “Terriers” all appeared on FX, along with a slew of other critically acclaimed and audience revered shows.
FX recently aired “Fargo”, a new series based on the Coen brother’s film. But the brothers didn’t have a lot, in any, involvement, giving their blessing to Noah Hawley, a writer whose previous credits include “Bones” and “The Unusuals”. It would be easy, and possibly ‘enough’ for Hawley to simply create a ‘tribute’ series, taking the films characters and simply mimicking everything the Coen brothers did in their highly acclaimed film. But Hawley doesn’t do this; he creates an entirely new story, with new characters, set in another decade. The television series owes a lot to the film, but it is a different, near-great and almost magnificent piece of story telling.
Every episode opens with the same title cards, just as the film did. “This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” Of course, the date shown at the beginning of the film is different, but otherwise they are very similar. And this is Hawley’s first sign to us that he is creating a unique television experience. Even though the title cards are the same, the events depicted are different, but contain similar elements.
Hawley also does something fairly uncommon with the narrative. On a couple of occasions, he shows an event or meeting in one episode only to back up the narrative leading up to that event in the next episode. He is effectively capturing our attention, ensuring we will return to watch the next episode, before filling in the details. Thankfully, these details are usually just as interesting as the more climatic moment he has already illustrated, so we don’t feel frustrated or cheated.
“Fargo” tells the story of three principal characters. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, BBC’s “Sherlock” and “The Office”, “The Hobbit”) is a meek man, an insurance agent, who is pushed around by everyone in his life; his wife, his younger, more successful brother, a bully he hasn’t seen since high school. But he just doesn’t have the balls to stand up to any of them. When the former high school bully humiliates Lester in front of his own two boys, who now seem to be taking up the mantle for his dad, Lester ends up going to the hospital. There, he meets…
Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a shady man passing through the small town of Bemidji. Lorne clearly likes to create havoc, mentioning things to people, planting bugs in their head, causing them to think bad thoughts. But he also likes to create real havoc, doing work for a firm out of Fargo, as a contract killer. But when he arrives in Bemidji and meets Lester, he seems intrigued and decides to stay awhile. In a nice nod to “Strangers on a Train”, as he and Lester talk, Lorne recognizes his new friend might have a need for his services.
The subsequent chaos causes Officer Molly Solverson (Allison Tollman) to take notice as violence is a rare occurrence in their small town. She immediately suspects Lester is involved, but her new boss Bill (Bill Odenkirk, TV’s “Breaking Bad”, the new “Better Call Saul”) can’t see the forest through the trees and doesn’t see how Lester is involved. In fact, when Lester complains to him, he orders Molly to stop harassing the upstanding insurance salesman.
The more these three characters circle each other, the more the people around them become involved. Molly meets a meek police office from a nearby town, Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks, TV’s “Dexter”) and his daughter, Greta (Joey King, the upcoming “Wish I Was Here”). Hitmen are dispatched from the Fargo office, the FBI becomes involved, there is a blackmail scheme, people are shot and killed, all occurring as a result of a chance meeting between Lester and Lorne in a hospital waiting room.
Lester’s own family is affected by the ‘agreement’ Malvo thinks he has reached with the insurance salesman.
And Lorne hangs around and becomes involved in the life of, among others, Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt), a supermarket chain owner.
The beauty of the television series is that it captures the feeling of the film so well, almost too well, mimicking the style and tone of not just the visual, but the narrative. Long, slow tracking shots across expansive terrain, usually snow and ice, eventually reveal the odd detail we are meant to see. The characters, Minnesota born and bred, use a lot of ‘geez’, ‘oh, yeah’ and ‘the heck’ when responding to one horrific situation after another. The humor in the series is pitch black, matching the film to a tee. The laughs aren’t in your face and don’t happen every second, but when they do, they cause you to take a second look, because you begin to doubt if you should be laughing at such a thing in the first place. And the narrative of the show meanders a bit, but it is supposed to. Hawley is taking his time building an experience for you that you won’t soon forget. It is like watching an extended cut of a film, over the course of ten hours. If you love the film, this will make you seem right at home, because there are more than a few moments which don’t seem to have a lot of connection to the narrative, they simply exist to give us a greater, more detailed picture of the character involved. There are scenes which seem to be mirror images of similar moments in the film – Frances McDormand’s Marge has a meeting with an old high school friend in the film, a moment that also occurs between Tollman’s Molly and a high school friend. But these don’t seem to be so much a copy as an illustration of how life is so similar in this small town. It maybe a different decade, but they still have lunch with awkward high school friends, learning quickly about their life since school ended.
The other brilliant thing about this series is this; it is a new story, involving new characters, but they seem to live in a Coen brothers’ universe. There are many ‘easter eggs’, for lack of a better word, to characters, places and even ideas from many of the Coen’s films, not simply “Fargo”. I can’t go into a lot of detail, because I didn’t even catch most of them and don’t want to ruin the surprise. For instance, at one point, Lester is looking for a house cleaning service and call Reifenschneider’s, after finding the listing in the phone book. This is the last name of Tony Shalhoub’s character in “The Man With No Name”. There are many references like this and it is a nifty way of tying in this series with the work of the two filmmakers who inspired it.
All of the actors are pitch perfect. Freeman’s Lester is a man whose fuse is slowly burning out. When it does, he begins to gain a certain amount of self-confidence back. Freeman also perfectly portrays that Midwestern Can-Do attitude; every time he faces an obstacle or someone who challenges him, he figures it out. Maybe not the way we would, but he figures it out.
Thornton is great as a sort-of devil incarnate. He really does seem to be happiest when surrounded by mayhem which is why he seems almost gleeful when he is able to plant an idea in someone’s head that will eventually lead to further violence.
Allison Tolman, a relative newcomer, seems almost a mirror image of the character Frances McDormand created for the film. Molly is sweet and charming, but also highly invested in her work. She won’t back down, even when Bill orders her to leave Lester alone.
Oliver Platt, Keith Carradine, Adam Goldberg, Russell Harvard, Stephen Root, Key & Peele, and many others are all very good and drop in to play smaller supporting roles. Everyone brings something unique and interesting to their characters, which in turn helps to make “Fargo” immensely watchable.
I really hope they do bring this series back for another season. It would have a mostly new and different cast, but it would probably still be just as great. The heck you say.
I mean if “American Horror Story” and “True Detective” can do it, why not “Fargo”.
Aw, jeez. Those are pretty big words to live by.