Fargo (the movie) is one of the Coen Brothers’ best films. Sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying, sometimes tragic, and always deeply entertaining, it is an excellent example of the misanthropic, biting morality Joel and Ethan Coen are so fond of depicting. (Tasha Robinson wrote an excellent essay about this idea back in January, when Fargo was The Dissolve‘s Movie of the Week.) Fargo (the tv show) is an interesting novelty. On the one hand it is a clear attempt at grabbing the brand recognition of a previously established property, while on the other it is executive produced by the Coens for FX, a cable network that is currently killing it on the original series front. It is hard to say how involved the brothers are in the series, but whoever is in charge has managed to produce something that feels pretty true to their vision of the world.
Much like in its cinematic inspiration, the city of Fargo, North Dakota is an ominous presence in the series, rather than the main setting. The show takes place in Bemidji, Minnesota, and follows a meek salesman (Martin Freeman) as he attempts to gain some control over his life with the help of a mysterious criminal (Billy Bob Thornton), despite being hunted closely by a female police officer (Allison Tolman). That certainly sounds familiar. These are not the only similarities between Fargo and Fargo, but my interpretation is that writer/creator Noah Hawley does this intentionally. Every time we get a moment just like one in the movie – taking for example the opening moment, showing a driving car accompanied by dramatic music – Hawley finds some way to subvert what we expect to happen.
Hawley’s extended pilot is pretty successful in telling a somewhat contained story, while setting up enough to sustain a series. Freeman’s Lester Nygaard is appropriately sniveling, without being annoying, and Tolman’s Officer Molly Solverson is a very engaging protagonist. Thornton and Colin Hanks fill out the regular cast; we get a brief glimpse of Hanks’s Deputy Gus Grimly toward the episode’s, but we spend a lot of time with Thornton’s Lorne Malvo, an agent of chaos who leaves much tumult in his wake as he leaves Bemidji. Thornton’s performance is the only one that really sticks out as odd. Throughout the episode it feels as if the actor just isn’t sure yet how to play things. I have faith that things will improve. Or at least I hope so, as Malvo’s dialogue as written is really great; up there with the great off-putting yet quirky villains the Coens themselves create.
It is pretty surprising how much of the Coen feel the series is able to mimic. The episode is directed by Adam Bernstein, and even though it does not have the same “look” that a cinematographer like Roger Deakins brings to a theatrical project, the deliberate and lingering pace is just right.
I have no idea how Fargo: TV Style will shake out. The whole thing could lose steam, but for now I am more than willing to find out. Color me cautiously optimistic, which is a look that I don’t usually do. Let’s see how well I wear it over the next several weeks.