When watching the 1996 Coen brothers film “Fargo,” the last thing anyone thinks is, ‘Wow. This would really work as a TV show.’ Even though it is an immensely entertaining accomplishment of the directorial team of Joel and Ethan Coen, something about the irreverently dark subject matter set against almost nauseating folksiness makes it an unsettling experience not suited to weekly viewing.
Lucky for us, someone saw new potential in its dynamic, and on Tuesday night, “Fargo: The Series,” premiered on FX.
This is not a sequel, a prequel or a remake of the acclaimed film. Really, it’s hard to tell why it’s even called “Fargo.” Unlike the movie, it’s set in Bemidji, Minnesota, not Fargo, North Dakota, and none of the characters are the same, with the only similarity being that the Coen brothers are involved in the project. They are executive producers for the 10-episode series.
It seems then that the name sharing is mainly to let viewers know what they’re getting. Like the film, the show is a story of desperation and spiraling circumstances resulting in a series of gruesome murders. All of this takes place in the Upper Midwest, a place where maintaining a constantly happy appearance is as much a part of life as de-icing windshields.
Creator of the show, Noah Hawley, has managed to transfer the eeriness and comedy of this to the new platform flawlessly. Because we spend more time watching them develop, we get a closer personal view into the show’s characters, whereas those in the movie were more shallowly presented. This makes the series inherently less funny, but the tradeoff for detail is worth it, as it makes it a very compelling to follow.
The main character, Lester Nygaard, played by “The Hobbit” star, Martin Freeman, is an insecure, unsuccessful insurance agent whose wife never lets him forget it. In fact, virtually every person he meets either belittles him or completely brushes him aside. When we meet him, he is at a point in his life when this constant torment has shattered his self-worth.
This is when he encounters Lorne Malvo, a mischievous psychopath played by Billy Bob Thornton. Lorne takes Lester’s problems into his own hands, and ends up involving him in a situation that he is not equipped to handle, but in a way, has always craved.
The lack of animation and amusing self-assurance Thornton demonstrates speak volumes about the way his character sees the world. When he does display what appears to be empathy though, his sense of humor and enviable confidence make him rather charming.
Freeman, who does an excellent Midwestern accent, uses the hesitation and skittishness of a pre-adventure Bilbo Baggins to make his character pitiable, even, and especially, while committing heinous acts. At some point, we even root for him to succeed at them, because he deserves at least a couple victories in his life.
Besides the main characters, we see familiar faces at every turn. Appearances in the first episode include Bob Odenkirk, Kate Walsh and Colin Hanks, and according to previews, there’s more to come later in the series.
And it’s no surprise that everyone wants to be involved in this show. “Fargo” is a funny, exciting exploration of a story hidden from most of us under the confounding veneer of Americana. The real question is, will it at least be almost as good as the movie? The only possible answer to that is, “You betcha!”
“Fargo” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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