“This is a true story,” announces the onscreen text. We see a snow-swept road and the headlights of a distant car. As it approaches, once-mournful strings rise to a crashing crescendo, punctuated by… sleigh bells.
I refer, of course, to Fargo. But not to Fargo, the 1996 Coen brothers film. No, I refer to Fargo, the new FX series making its debut tonight. The familiar elements are all there: the sad-sack salesman and female cop and murderous drifter; the car crash and ill-fated traffic stop and grisly murders; the semi-arctic setting and “Minnesota nice” accents offering up yahs and you betchas and fer Pete’s sakeses. But they’re scrambled into unexpected sequences and patterns. This is not a remake. It’s a remix.
The idea of making Fargo into a TV show has been around almost since the movie itself hit theaters, and it’s always seemed to me a terrible one given the idiosyncratic nature of the source material. In 1997 a pilot was even shot, though never picked up, featuring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco in the role of Marge Gunderson, the iconic police chief played by Frances McDormand in the film. But the FX show takes a different approach from such would-be sequels, bringing back not the original characters but instead merely their types. And the result is, to my considerable surprise, very, very good.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Lorne Malvo, a wandering pocket of malevolent mischief that blows into the wintry town of Bemidji. (The action has been relocated northward, from the Brainerd and Minneapolis of the film to the Bemidji and Duluth of the show.) There, following the aforementioned car crash, Malvo has a random encounter with insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a man so comprehensively beaten down by life that he registers almost as a living bruise. The meeting leads to a spasm of violence that gradually radiates outward, like cracks on a frozen lake. One murder begets another, and then a third. The case is taken up by a dogged deputy named Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and, eventually, a less capable but well-meaning young cop from the Duluth force (Colin Hanks). And that’s all I’ll say of the plot, as one of the principle pleasures of the series is seeing how creator Noah Hawley (Bones, The Unusuals) has taken the odd tropes of the Coens’ film and reassembled them in surprising ways and satisfying ways.
Like True Detective and its own FX sibling American Horror Story, Fargo is a limited series—10 episodes from start to finish—with the possibility, depending on its success, of becoming an “anthology” show in which future seasons would feature new casts and storylines. The benefits of this kind of miniseries-with-benefits are growing increasingly evident: the ability to attract bigger stars or directors (Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick will be coming to Cinemax later this year); the avoidance of sticking-around-a-season-too-long syndrome; the requirement that a show knows where it’s headed before it begins. (Yeah, Lost, I’m looking at you.)
Thornton is quite good as Malvo, a kind of second-tier Rust Cohle who’s playing for the other team. Thornton has had a rough career decade, and it’s nice to see him back in a role that makes proper use of his peculiar charisma. Freeman is also strong as Lester Nygaard, the resident loser and heir to William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard. (But let’s face it: Nobody—nobody—is going to out-hangdog Macy, especially not in the role that catapulted him from unknown to indispensible.) And newcomer Allison Tolman makes a powerful first impression as the obstinate Deputy Molly Solverson. Hanks is solid as Deputy Gus Grimly, and the supporting cast is littered with well-known faces: Oliver Platt as a regional supermarket magnate, Adam Goldberg as a hitman with a deaf/mute partner, and Bob Odenkirk as a less-than-competent cop. (The role may come a bit soon for Odenkirk, who still carries a strong whiff of Saul Goodman.)