Joel and Ethan Coen didn’t direct FX’s Fargo, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they did.
The new drama series, premiering tonight on FX, takes its title and tone, if not its story and characters, from the Coen brothers classic. It’s a 10-episode exploration of the world established by the Coens, but with new crimes, new criminals and new cops to muck everything up. As with the movie, it’s a wonderful world to spend time in — wonderful, and deadly.
In the pilot, Fargo introduces viewers to a malicious force of nature named Lorne Malvo. More an animal than a man, Malvo walks the walk and talks the talk, cutting a swath of destruction wherever he roams. His misadventures take him to an emergency room in Bemidji, Minnesota, where he meets a man named Lester Nygaard, an insurance salesman — and a crummy one at that.
Nygaard isn’t having a great day. He screwed up a business deal and sports a busted nose, courtesy of a random encounter with the high school bully that slept with his wife way back when. Frustrated and low, Nygaard is in a bad way, and perfectly primed for Malvo’s manipulative manner.
As the two get to talking, Malvo offers to take care of Nygaard’s problem with the bully. The salesman gives tacit approval, and leaves the conversation with Malvo’s bravado echoing in his head. He sees things differently; he realizes he can do something with his frustration. And that crystal-clear realization leads him to take drastic actions that will forever change his life, and the lives of everyone around him.
All 10 episodes of Fargo come courtesy of writer Noah Hawley, creator of short-lived network dramas The Unusuals and My Generation. With Hawley at the helm, Fargo speaks with a distinct, unified voice (insert your Minnesota accent jokes of choice) that calls to mind the spirit and tone that made Fargo the movie so unique. Hawley approaches Fargo like he’s making his own Coen brothers movie. The result: excellent dialogue, excellent characters and a plot that twists and turns.
Not all of the twists come out of nowhere, however. At the risk of sounding vague, there’s one character in the pilot who appears positioned for one thing, but ends up serving another purpose. The show zigs left when you think it’s zigging right with the character — except the eagle-eyed viewer has had an eye on the left all along. The surprise doesn’t land on both feet. Similarly, there’s one pivotal scene involving Malvo and a well-placed knife that doesn’t feel totally true to the Coen spirit. But those are minor complaints in the face of everything that works, especially the characters.
As Malvo, Billy Bob Thornton is the chest-pounding gorilla in the room. The Oscar-nominated actor sinks his teeth into the flesh of his character and never gives up an inch. He plays Malvo with detached iciness and calculated curiosity, always seeking an angle, always sizing up his situation. He’s a human tornado, a poisonous creature that damages everything he contacts. Malvo is a man of mystery and a fascinating force. It’s a guilty pleasure to spend one hour with the man; the idea of spending nine more with him is even more exciting.
Martin Freeman plays Nygaard with all of the humble, bumbling insecurity that Freeman does so well. But unlike his interpretations of Bilbo Baggins and John Watson, Freeman’s Nygaard harbors an ugly side. There’s a hidden Heisenberg inside of him, and it’s released by the meeting with Malvo. Freeman’s likability camouflages the wormy Lester until it’s too late. It’s a different performance than Freeman usually delivers, yielding one of the most interesting roles of his career.
Thornton and Freeman are household names, and their performances live up to expectations. But the real surprise of Fargo is Allison Tollman as Bemidji Police Department deputy Molly Solverson. As Molly, Tollman turns in one of the quirkier characters of Fargo, thanks to the relative newcomer’s background in sketch comedy. But she’s smart, capable, and easily underestimated as well. She’s alert and awake, one of few of the “good guy” characters on the show who actually seems capable of solving the crimes at the heart of the matter. It’s a great performance from Tollman, who marks her biggest gig to date with Fargo. With any luck, we’ll be seeing much more of her in the years to come.
Really, the performances are the main draw of Fargo. It’s hard to shake your head at a cast that features not just Thornton and Freeman, but veterans like Keith Carradine, Bob Odenkirk, Colin Hanks and Kate Walsh. Everyone gets their moment to shine with enough unusual character traits to make them all stand out. Credit goes to the actors, but again, Hawley’s vision for each character is strong and deliberate, right on the border between light and dark. In Fargo, great writing meets great acting. It’s a happy marriage.
Comparisons between Fargo the film and Fargo the television series are inevitable. Frankly, they’re invited, by virtue of the premise. Will the anthology series meet the same heights as the Coen film? Unlikely, but that’s an impossible benchmark to reach — and it’s not necessarily the goal of the series to begin with. Fargo very intentionally separates itself from the film by focusing on new faces and new crimes. It sets out to feel familiar, while striving to spin a worthwhile yarn of its own. As of the pilot, it’s working.
Fargo airs Tuesday nights at 10 ET/PT on FX.