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FX’s Darkly Funny ‘Fargo’ Is Far More Than a Coen Brothers Rehash

Here are the reservations that we must get out of the way first: Fargo the series is not a strict adaptation of Fargo the film. It is superficially similar but should be seen as a separate entity. Although Fargo borrows settings, themes, accents, violence, and a hell of a lot of snow from the movie, it is a distant cousin, twice removed, not a copycat child. It should also be said that, aside from its origin (and other films from the Coen brothers), Fargo will be compared to a handful of recent television dramas. There are shades of Breaking Bad and True Detective, two shows that are still lingering in our minds. Fargo does not take place in a unique universe. We have already seen detective thrillers, middle-class white dude antiheroes, unfortunate women, questions of masculinity, gleeful acts of disturbing violence, and good people who suddenly realize that they are capable of not-so-good actions. That said? Fargo is a thoroughly enjoyable watch (particularly the first episode), beautifully shot, and very, very funny. 

Early in the pilot episode, Pearl Nygaard (Kelly Holden Bashar) tells her husband Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), “You make your own wins.” It’s a cheap pep talk as Lester heads off to his unfulfilling job as an insurance salesman, but there is a a flip side to that encouragement, an underlying hiss of, “You make your own losses.” The wins and losses aren’t clear-cut in Fargo — nor should they be — and I suspect Lester will go back and forth plenty of times before the end of the season — and the end of his story; like True DetectiveFargo is an anthology series that will hit the reset the button with a new cast and narrative if (when) it gets a second season.

Lester is the very definition of a put-upon, pathetic mess of a character. His stuttering indecisiveness sends him on a dark and fucked-up path. He can’t catch a break — not from his wife, not from his brother, not from the high-school bullies who still bully him as an adult, and not even from a broken washing machine that loudly thumps in his basement, reminding him over and over that it’s just another thing in his life that he’s failed to fix.

These nagging feelings abound in Fargo, spread out among the characters. There is the nagging feeling that things won’t get better no matter what you do, that you’re missing something right under your nose, that self-preservation has made you indirectly responsible for some truly horrific shit, and the nagging feeling that you know these two puzzle pieces fit together but you can’t seem to align them in the right way.

FARGO - Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX

And the cast! Billy Bob Thornton’s malevolent Lorne Malvo is both comically terrifying and menacingly funny, with a terrible haircut to match his terrible nature. Martin Freeman, who proved his ability to convey a wealth of emotion with just a single glance in The Office, is at it again here: head cocks and winces say more than his words ever could. The entire cast is so fantastic that watching the episodes turned me into Lucille Bluth spotting Gene Parmesan, joyfully shrieking when someone I loved popped up on screen: Colin Hanks! Glenn Howerton! Bob Odenkirk! Oliver Platt! Adam Goldberg!

There are some problems, such as the aforementioned lack of originality within the genre, but it’s easy to shrug that off and enjoy Fargo for what it is. I also can’t help but worry about the Breaking Bad-like, “Let’s praise Walter White but hate his wife” reactions that this show may provoke in viewers. Because FX is seemingly scared of women, there is a not-so-surprising lack of them in Fargo that only stands out more in contrast to the movie (good thing think-pieces are always in style!). But for the most part, the women here aren’t empty set pieces. They are well-written and interesting, with smarts that put the men to shame. Relative newcomer Allison Tolman as Deputy Molly Solverson is strong and intelligent, and will become an instant favorite. Young Joey King as Greta Grimly stands out in every scene she’s in.

There are times within the first four episodes when the story feels a bit too crowded, but it’s still apparent that everything on the side is building to something stunning. While I liked all of what I saw, it’s the pilot episode that sinks its hooks into you. It’s superbly crafted and attention-grabbing, clocking in at a whopping 97 minutes with commercials — for reference, the movie is only 98 minutes long — but there isn’t a boring moment. The pilot is full of bleak hilarity, sudden violence, and character reversals. It’s shockingly funny, with humor often used as a clever tension breaker (I surprised myself with laughter many times). But outside of the Minnesota niceness and the comical accents — drinking game: one sip for every “Ya!” or “You betcha!” — there is still a cold and unspeakable horror that runs throughout Fargo, dark and gruesome.

Here’s the biggest tip I can give for watching Fargo: If you’re looking to see a television version of the movie, do yourself a favor and just watch the movie. If you want an engaging, smart, and gorgeously snowy TV thriller, clear your mind and watch the show.

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