It has been nearly twenty years now since the Coen Brothers' masterpiece Fargo hit the cinematic landscape (in 1996) like an atom bomb. The claustrophobia induced by those desolate snow-covered plains was mesmerizing and horrific. We saw the very best and the very worst of what mankind has to offer all within the snowbound town of Brainerd. The intricacies, follies and triumphs of humanity all on display packaged in a delightfully dark and self-sufficient film. Heck it was even inducted into the National Film Registry back into 2006 for preservation due to its significant cultural impact in the first year of the work's eligibility.
I look back on that time in movies and in television and another event stands out. HBO, only three years later, airs the the Sopranos. All of those ideas, the darkness and the light, all jammed into one mobster with panic attacks. Television changed forever and, honestly, when I peer in the rear-view I think Fargo has a lot to do with that humongous sea-change. Now television regularly plumbs the depths of human consciousness and readily explores every nuance and dark corner imaginable. Tell me Walter White isn't at least in some way like the narcissistic and twitchy Jerry Lundegaard? The current wave of scripted television owes a lot to the Coen Brothers back in 1996. It is only fitting that the catalyst for this new renaissance of television be brought to the small screen.
This version takes place in Bemidji (though really it isn't far off from any other small Minnesota town). The people are friendly as all hell and life moves a slower pace. We're introduced right away to a fellow driving down a lonesome highway in the middle of the night. The world is blanketed in snow and the only contrast to the white is the stark onyx of the highway speckled with fingers of frost. The all-too familiar scrawl of text about this being based on true events, the names being changed and so forth. Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a dead-eyed fellow with a terrible haircut, speeds down the asphalt with what appears to be a rifle beside him in the seat. A flash of fur and sudden impact leaves the fellow stranded on the side of the road, old jalopy burrowed in the snow. The trunk bursts open and a frightened man in only his underwear makes a break for it. Lorne seems to set off after him but stops upon catching sight of the deer he hit. It draws its last breath before we make a sudden cut to the dining room of Lester (Martin Freeman) and Pearl Nygaard. A somewhat familiar scene as Lester, the somewhat wormy every-man, tries to quietly enjoy his meal though his wife seems less than pleased. She, in passing, mentions something about his younger brother and how well off he is, how great he's doing. Forced smiles and nods lead to Lester stepping away from the table and there is just a momentary flicker of such awful malice on his face.
If you've seen the original film none of this seems too far removed from the original. You'll notice immediately that for all the atmosphere and superb acting on display there is also clear homage being paid. This series is very much an offspring of the original yet it firmly stands on its own as a dark, brutal and damn funny glimpse into what lies beneath the polite exterior of most men. Lorne Malvo is nothing new either. He is, for lack of a better word, the Devil. The casual approach to taking life that the man has is off-putting yet (in typical Billy Bob Thornton style) it all comes with a twinkling delivery that somehow makes him hard to resist. Lester, meanwhile, is spineless, somewhat dumb and a bit of a failure. Martin Freeman really owns the role and even with only one episode aired thus far it is quite clear that we have a new Jerry Lundegaard.
It would all be for naught, however, if we didn't have our Margie. Alison Tolman steps into the role of the smartest lady of the room, Molly Solverson. She echoes Frances McDormand's Oscar-winning role yet plays Molly different enough so as to feel like something more than just a cheap imitation. She is fiercely loyal, smart as a whip and convinced there is far more going on than just some drifter (Malvo) rolling into town and offing one or two people.
It would be easy to just discount the show as a cash-grab and yet another series that plumbs the darkness of normal men and shows just how easy it is for anyone to break bad. The difference is we're getting a show that, while quite violent in bursts, is also hilarious. The dark comic sensibilities of the scripting and direction (thanks to Noah Hawley's steady hand and the executive producer Coen Brothers) shines throughout.
I was truly sold on the show, however, when a scene involving Lorne and Duluth police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks). It is a routine traffic stop and the officer queries him for his registration. Lorne, mildly annoyed yet civil nonetheless, lets him know, "Some roads you shouldn't go down because maps used to say there'd be dragons there. Now they don't but that don't mean they aren't there." It is a chilling sequence that is expertly framed and delivered thanks to Thornton and Hanks. The dragon rolls up his window and drives off while leaving Officer Grimly to sort through the fear and anger in his squad car. It was an intense and powerful moment in the debut episode that went miles on hooking me in fully.
If you're a fan of the original film then you're going to find a lot to enjoy within the TV series and the ten episodes it will span. If it is a huge success and FX feels it necessary we might see more in the future with a new cast and location. That is to worry about later, though, as for now we're getting one of the strongest premiere episodes for a series I've seen in a long time.
Carefully crafted, expertly acted and meticulously scripted are just a few of the superlatives I could use. Bottom line the show is funny and eye-opening. I cannot wait for next Tuesday to roll around so I can consume more.