How do you make a television series out of the Coen brothers' chilly Minnesotan neo-noir "Fargo"? Well, there's the straightforward approach, which is what MGM tried when it produced a pilot for a "Fargo" television series back in 1997, starring Edie Falco in the continuing adventures of Marge Gunderson. That one never got off the ground, and thank goodness, because otherwise Noah Hawley's far more interesting take on "Fargo" for FX in 2014 might not exist.
Technically, the television series is a sequel to the film, set in the same universe. However, the show is better described as a loving pastiche of "Fargo," with a few major elements taken from other Coen brothers films. The story is entirely original, about a series of different crimes committed over two decades later, but constructed in such a way that many themes and characters and events echo between "Fargo" the film and "Fargo the series: snowy landscapes, violent murders, desperate men, moral quandaries, and a noble policewoman at the center of it all, putting the pieces together. It's not necessary for the viewer to have seen the original "Fargo" to enjoy the series, but non-Coens fans will miss out on all the little references, particularly the way that the show takes some of the iconic images from the film and finds ways to work them into the new story in different contexts.
On to the plot. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a lowly insurance salesman, lives in Bemidji, Minnesota. After a terrible day of being henpecked by a resentful wife and menaced by an old bully, Lester has a chance meeting with a sinister man whose name will eventually be revealed as Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). Malvo is a terrible fellow who murders people for a living and also for his own enjoyment. Soon he and Lester are involved in a terrible series of crimes that attracts the attention of Bemidji police deputy Molly Salverson (Allison Tolman) and an officer in the neighboring town of Duluth, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks). And if that weren't enough star power, among the supporting players you many recognize Bob Odenkirk as Chief Oswalt, Keith Carradine as Molly's father, Joey King as Gus's daughter, Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard as a pair of hitmen, Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a pair of FBI agents, and Oliver Platt as a local supermarket mogul.
I've never seen a show this good on basic cable before It's not just the high production values or the sterling cast, but just how well-conceived and beautifully executed the whole show is. It's been so long since I've seen the "Fargo" film, that it didn't hit me how well Hawley and his collaborators managed to capture the rich moral complexity of this universe until several episodes in. The show is often jarringly dark, not only because of the graphic violence, but the cruelty with which that violence is meted out, and because of how the perpetrators are portrayed. "Breaking Bad" and other modern television series have been all about examining and often romanticizing the anti-hero. In "Fargo," we may be occasionally invited to sympathize or to admire the wrongdoers, but not for long.
There's this wonderful sense of existential dread, a growing dismay that builds episode after episode as we realize that Lorne Malvo keeps doing horrible things, and a few rural police officers, as smart and resourceful as they are, simply aren't a match for him. There is also a very Coens-esque sense of cosmic justice, a hand of fate at work throughout, but it only ensures that bad choices lead to bad outcomes, not that the evil are punished or that the innocent are saved. Death is cold and harsh and bleak, mirroring the winter landscapes the players traverse. And as each ten-episode season is being treated as a separate miniseries with different casts, no character is guaranteed to survive for appearances in the following season.
I have no idea what kind of budget the show's creators were working with, but the "Fargo" series looks magnificent. The visuals are easily feature quality, though it wisely doesn't try to ape the Coens' style. Instead, it goes about evoking the same tone and mood, that wonderful mix of dark humor, small town pleasantries, sing-song accents, and inclement weather. It manages the wonderful trick of never seeming like it's trying to cross paths with the movie, but instead occasionally stumbling across the same images, or snatches of dialogue, or a similar character by accident. While Lester Nygaard may remind you of Jerry Lundegaard at first glance, he's a complete different and equally compelling reprobate, operating on a different scale.
Special mention must be made of the lead performers here. Martin Freeman's inherent likeability is used to wonderful effect to get us to root for Lester, and distract us from the less savory parts of his nature. Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo seems to share quite a bit of DNA with Anton Chigurh from "No Country For Old Men," and makes for a wonderful Devil figure. He's the flashiest and most quotable villain of the piece, and probably the guy that everyone will remember this series for. However, "Fargo" also benefits from strong turns from the dependable Colin Hanks as one of our heroes, and Allison Tolman, emerging from almost total obscurity, as the other. Tolman is an especially wonderful presence here, playing the kind of female character we don't see on television much, and sorely need to see portrayed more often.
The "Fargo" series is a massive accomplishment for everyone involved, and this includes FX, which can't be ignored as a source of great television after this. I hope that Noah Hawley will be able to keep the same level of quality going forward, but after the second season of "True Detective," that may be asking for too much. Fortunately, the first year of the "Fargo" television series stands perfectly well on its own, and is about as good a series based off of a feature film could ever possibly hope to be. If Noah Hawley gets the urge to make a "Raising Arizona" or "Barton Fink" series in the same vein, that would be very all right by me.