TV Review: “Fargo” – Oh, You Betcha

Written by Spencer Sterritt June 24, 2014


“Fargo” the movie was released 18 years ago, and managed to tell a fantastic tale about violence and randomness in a concise 98 minutes. “Fargo” the TV show, adapted by Noah Hawley and produced by the Coen brothers, runs for nearly ten hours and covers almost the same territory. Grounded by a multitude of lovely performances and fantastic low key tension, it manages to feel more like a spiritual successor than simple retelling.

Like Jerry Lundegaard before him, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) gets in a whole heap of trouble driven by the crippling emasculation at the hands of nearly everyone, and his own deep desire to be better than everyone else. By the premiere’s end Lester has run into Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton), a nihilistic hit man who creates chaos in the small Midwest towns of Bemidji, Duluth, and Fargo. The whole series spins off from their first encounter, involving small town Deputy Molly Solverson (Alison Tolman), Officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), and two other assassins named Mr.Numbers (Adam Goldberg) and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard).

“You’re screwed. You made a choice. I’m the consequence.”

The biggest question “Fargo” has to answer is whether or not its very existence is justified. If people want more “Fargo,” they can just re-watch the movie! Thankfully this TV adaptation manages to allay any fears that it would be a simple retread fairly early. The accents, low key sensibilities, and crisp pace make the first forty minutes of the premiere feel like a retread, but then Lester fatally bonks his wife in the head with a hammer – not once, but thrice – and everything clicks into place. Though the core concept is the same, under Noah Hawley’s keen eye “Fargo” uses all of its available time to more deeply suss out the various themes and complications of the film, and create an even more chaotic murder-mystery for Molly Solverson to solve.

Fargo, Billy Bob Thorton, Martin Freeman

The Coen brothers work best with a sense of impending doom, as seen in “A Serious Man”, “No Country For Old Men”, and “Blood Simple.” This adaptation takes all of its lessons from their filmography, and spins a tense tale that all spirals from that first meeting with Lester and Malvo. It’s a very restrained and grim show that keeps nearly all of the violence on screen and intimate, like a neck being slashed or three heads being shot open inside a cramped elevator.

“Highly irregular is the time I found a human foot in a toaster oven. This is just odd.”

When the show does go big in the middle episodes – a SWAT shootout at a suburban house, a cat and mouse game during a whiteout, and a machine gun massacre at a mob headquarters – “Fargo” loses something. All of those set pieces are well shot and interesting to watch, but they don’t align quite right with the tone of the series. Constant slow and creeping punch-ins and zooms emphasize the tension and the inevitability of death; by the finale nearly every character is framed within the shots in an ominous way, and you have no idea who will survive.

Fargo, Billy Bob Thorton, machine gun

One of the reasons the show works so well is Billy Bob Thorton’s performance as Lorne Malvo. He’s the ultimate embodiment of evil, and Billy Bob is very disconcerting and off-putting. His reputation as an actor has flagged considerably in the last five or six years, but he’s in top form here. The only issue I have is with his character, not his performance. The idea of the devil incarnate, a man who just wants to make everyone miserable and revels in chaos, is an effective character. It’s been a popular one lately – really ever since “The Dark Knight” – and it’s becoming less and less effective with every new show that features that type of villain.

“He’s not gonna stop. You know that, right? A man like that. He’s not even a man.”

To make up for the devil incarnate character Noah Hawkley and Billy Bob Thorton have constructed, there is Alison Tolman as Molly Solverson, who is a twist on Francis McDormand’s Marge Gunderson from the original film. In her first major role, Alison Tolman acts as a perfect lynchpin who navigates the serious and darkly comic tones at work in “Fargo.” Though Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thorton were the big name draws for the series, it’s Alison Tolman who fills the center of the show and makes for a thrilling protagonist. She also gets to show off her romantic side in a subplot with Colin Hanks; they both have very cute chemistry. “Fargo” didn’t initially seem like the kind of show that would captivate the audience on a romantic front, but lo and behold.

Fargo, Alison Tolman

Though there was initially some skepticism about the television adaptation of “Fargo,” under the watchful eyes of the Coen brothers and Noah Hawley (who wrote all of the episodes), “Fargo” turned out to be a triumph of the limited run season. Everything is wrapped up, and next season will feature a brand new plot and only a few remaining characters. Through the exceptional performances and elongated run time, “Fargo” is a fully-formed spiritual successor to the original film that deserves to be held in similarly high regard.

My Rating: 8/10


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About Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt: former Editor-In-Chief for We Eat Films, future President of the Men With Beards Club, and hopefully candidate for ruler of the world.

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