When Fox first announced plans to adapt the Coen brother’s highly regarded black-comedy Fargo into a 10-part miniseries, fans of the 1996 classic were understandably perturbed.
After all, how often does a beloved movie translate into an equally fulfilling (if not more so) TV series? For every Buffy The Vampire Slayer there’s a Ferris Bueller or a Blade: The Series (or even, some might say, a Marvel’s Agents of Shield).
Fargo fanatics could therefore be forgiven for instantly dismissing Noah Hawley’s adaptation as the work of a greedy TV network shamelessly rehashing old ideas to make a quick buck rather than taking the risk on something more original and virtuous. But that would be a mistake as Fargo overcomes an unsure start to suggest it has all the makings of a brilliant, brooding miniseries.
It starts in the same way the Coen’s did 18 years ago: a disingenuous disclaimer tells us that these events are true and only the names have been changed as we watch a car traverse a stretch of black tarmac that slices through desolate snowfields. Tonally, Hawley’s series is indivisible from cinema, right down to the black comedy (such as Bob Odenkirk’s gag-sensitive deputy) and ‘Minnesota nice’ milieu. This often works to its disadvantage as the first episode struggles to find its own unique rhythm.
Hawley’s story follows Martin Freedman’s nebbish, milquetoast insurance salesman Lester Nygaard. Similar to William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard but not nearly as slimy, Lester struggles to make a living, is ridiculed by a wife who would rather be married to his younger brother, and is still being taunted in the street by his high-school bully. Life repeatedly berates Lester, much like the thumping churn of his faulty washing machine that is used to great effect throughout the episode.
A chance encounter in an emergency room inevitably throws Lester into the orbit of Lorne Malvo (an unsettlingly twitchy Billy Bob Thornton), the Coen’s traditional devil in a bad haircut, who offers him the chance to claw back some self-respect by setting off a chain of events that will infect the entire town. Thornton’s Malvo is a motiveless agent of chaos, introducing murderous violence to a mundane town simply because he gets a kick out of it.
This seems redolent of True Detective in its suggestion that violence, money and size of your gun are the only meaningful measures of masculinity. Disappointingly, in this episode at least, this diminishes the role of women, most notably Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman slotting into the Marge Gunderson role), a naïve policewoman who sees herself as inferior to her male colleagues. Here’s hoping Molly grows in experience and determination as the series goes on, and eventually cuts through all the macho posturing to solve the crime.
For about the first hour, the story is strangely unexceptional, plodding through the ordinary-man-breaks-bad storyline as it gets caught between evoking a sense of the movie and forging its own path. But the final thirty minutes, after Malvo’s sinister mechanisations have taken hold, are much stronger, becoming bolder and bloodier as the world of mindless violence starts to take over the small-town and all who inhabit it.
It’s not a perfect start for Fargo as it struggles to step out from the shadow of the Coen’s movie and find its own original groove in the story, but it finishes strong, making the most of the great performances from a stellar cast. All of which bodes well for the remaining nine episodes.
I guess a Fargo TV series might not be such a bad idea after all, eh?