When it was first announced that the American television channel FX was planning to produce a television series based on the Coen brothers’ acclaimed film Fargo (1996), it was debated whether the small screen project would be able to meet the (very high) expectations that were generated by its association to the Hollywood classic.
The Academy Award winning movie — which tells the story of a car salesman (William H Macy), who plans to make money by hiring criminals to kidnap his wife and seeking ransom from her father, and the police officer (Frances McDormand) who investigates the resulting homicides — was unique and compellingly odd, and its combination of acrid humour and dark drama made it a memorable experience for viewers. But it remained to be seen whether the formula would successfully transition to television or end up feeling like elaborate fan fiction?
Now that the series has aired, it is safe to conclude that the project has definitely lived up to its potential. Each of the ten episodes of FX’s Fargo begins with the familiar title cards that claim it is rooted in reality: “This is a true story,” the screen shows. “The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
It’s the same disclaimer that was used by the Coens, and just like the film, everything that follows it is entirely fictional.
Set in the same backdrop as the movie, the series takes us to Bemidji, Minnesota, which finds itself engulfed in desolate winter. We meet Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), an awkward insurance salesman, who is belittled by his nagging wife, overshadowed by his brother and still bullied by his high school nemesis. His existence seems both pathetic and desperate, but when a shady drifter crosses his path, Lester’s dark side awakens and his life changes forever.
The drifter is Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a remorseless criminal and murderer who causes mayhem wherever he goes. When a chance meeting in a hospital waiting room brings Nygaard and Malvo together, it sets off a series of events that leaves a bloody trail leading back to these two men. As the body count rises, they manage to elude the authorities, fooling or intimidating anyone crossing their path — except the persistent Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), the mild-mannered cop who struggles to overcome the incompetence around her. She works with a Duluth-based officer, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), as she tries to nail down the culprits. Thereon, the series explores two different kinds of evil, evidenced in Lester and Malvo, as well as the confrontation between good and bad.
The Coens didn’t play an active part in the creation of the series, but show-runner Noah Hawley (who imagined the project as a limited series, with the potential of becoming an anthology in another season) has done a remarkable job capturing the film’s spirit and bringing it to television. Fargo inherits the desolate cinematography, bleak tones, and Midwestern affectations of its big screen counterpart, and adds more quirk to the proceedings. Of course, since it is following a widely recognised cinematic work, it lacks originality, but it does not wilt in the shadow of the film that inspired it. It makes good use of its connection to its predecessor with amusingly clever references, the most obvious of which comes up during a detour into a subplot that leads us to the ransom money from the film.
Fargo has assembled a very talented cast: Billy Bob Thornton creates a chilling, creepy portrait of sociopathic wickedness. Martin Freeman is impeccable as Nygaard (his Minnesotan accent isn’t bad either), whose encounter with evil reveals a selfish persona. And relative newcomer Allison Tolman is a terrific find; she impresses throughout in the role of Molly, who is the only one not fooled by Nygaard, and whose search to uncover the truth basically underpins the series.
The supporting actors all perform well, although some of their characters don’t get the attention they deserve. The amazing Bob Odenkirk, who plays the ineffectual police chief, gives a good performance even though his role is perhaps a tad too dull. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key portray FBI Agents and are on hand to provide some comic relief, but their characters could have used a little more exploration. Oliver Platt performs well as the supermarket king who hires Malvo to uncover a blackmailing plot, but his storyline comes to an end a bit more abruptly than one would have hoped.
On the whole, this revisit to the snow-covered landscape of Fargo takes us on a dark, captivating ride. The show is still worth watching even if you are not familiar with the movie, but for the fans of the film, there are little Easter Eggs that pop up from time to time and make the series just that little bit more special. Fargo is propelled by a terrific cast, and expertly interweaves different storylines. However, it does take a few less-than-convincing turns, and the execution of the end leaves a bit to be desired. Even though its overall plot and pacing might be slow for some viewers, FX’s Fargo never stops being interesting. And even when its characters are irredeemable, it remains a thrill to find out how things will eventually fare for them.
Sameen Amer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic. She tweets @Sameen
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 20th, 2014.