Who: “Fargo,” currently airs on cable TV, specifically on FX, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM.
What: “Fargo,” a black comedy/dramedy drawing inspiration from the film of the same name, which was penned and directed by the Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel). The television show follows the down-on-his-luck Lester (Martin Freeman, The Hobbit; Sherlock) and the undue influence of hit-man-for-hire Lorne (Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade; Bad Santa), when he may not actually be on the job, on a small Minnesotan town.
When: The series premiered on FX, Tuesday, April 15, 2014, at 10:00 PM.
Where: The action is set in and around northern Minnesota. No one’s been to Fargo anything as of the pilot, for the record.
Why: This was recommended by a friend and theatrical colleague, who appreciates good large and small screen fare (he was/is a professional actor himself). He thought I might like it; little did he know (at first) that I also enjoy the film. Of the Coen brothers films I’ve seen, Fargo and Barton Fink are my favorites…also, I was very curious to see how a big screen, quirky, somewhat violent tale of carnage in small town northern Minnesota might fare in the extended storytelling arena of television.
How – as in How Was It?
The pilot/premiere rating scale:
***** – I HAVE TO WATCH EVERYTHING. HOLY SMOKES!
**** – Well, it certainly seems intriguing. I’m going to keep watching, but I see possible pitfalls in the premise.
*** – I will give it six episodes and see what happens. There are things I like, and things I don’t. We’ll see which “things” are allowed to flourish.
** – I will give it three episodes. Chances are, I’m mainly bored, but there is some intrigue or fascination that could hold it together. No matter how unlikely.
* – Pass on this one, guys. It’s a snoozer/not funny/not interesting/not my cup of tea… there are too many options to waste time on this one.
Fargo = ***1/2
Lester Nygaard (Freeman) is a mild-mannered insurance salesman, living in small town Minnesota, who can’t seem to catch a break. He’s beleaguered by his critical wife, who tells him what to do and how to do everything, and is still bullied by those who roughed him up in high school. When Sam Hess, the biggest of those bullies, and his two sons encounter Lester in the street, his meekness actually causes him to break his nose by running into a window. While in the hospital, waiting for the nurses, he meets Lorne (Thornton), who, in the opening sequence of the pilot, drives into the Minnesotan winter wilderness, runs off the road, and gets into an accident; from Lorne’s battered trunk leaps a man without clothes (except his boxers), who runs into the night, only to freeze to death by morning. Lorne tries to convince Lester in the hospital that Mr. Hess deserves to die for his many bullying behaviors, and Lorne offers his help in providing the service of murder at Lester’s word, which causes Lester to stutter away into the recesses of the hospital, freaked out by the thought that Lorne might be serious. Lorne takes the lack of a “no” from Lester as more of a “yes” and does the deed, an action that both frightens and empowers Lester, who takes matters of his life and home into his own hands. Meanwhile, female police officer Molly Solverson impresses her chief by investigating the abandoned vehicle left by Lorne and the corpse of the man found frozen in the wilderness, reasoning that the man was not killed by the accident itself. Her search also, eventually, causes her to cross paths with Lester, as she attempts to suss out the circumstances behind what appears to be an escalation of murders in her small town.
Fargo borrows the opening titles, tone, mood, pacing, and funny regional accents of its source film to create a mystery that feels like the film without actually being the film. The TV titles continue to claim that the story of the show is based on true events with only names changed, but that assertion is merely a tongue-in-cheek nod to the tongue-in-cheek statement opening the film. None of the story is based in reality, or maybe it’s loosely based on pieces and parts of true events, but if both TV and film titles were true, Minnesota would be a violent and snowy state in which to reside.
The most pleasant part about this television adaptation is the presence of British actor Martin Freeman, who has made a name for himself playing British characters, such as Bilbo Baggins, Dr. Watson, and Arthur Dent (of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). In this program, he’s donning his northern Midwest American accent with the best of them and in a more than convincing execution, and his ability to play bumbling and meek, qualities he’s perfected in several of his roles, serves him particularly well in this role. Equally intriguing is Thornton’s very thin Lorne, whose motivations seem dark and depraved and entirely unclear as of the first episode of the series. What is his purpose? To fulfill a role? To cause trouble? To share in misery that he is experiencing because misery loves company, and he’s a typically lonely hit-man, cut off from society by his profession of being a gun for hire? The questions about his character abound.
While the mood and elements of the show hearken significantly back to the film from whence the creators have drawn their inspiration, there are downsides to this new format. Fargo the movie was slower in pace, but the film pacing set the stage for some of the more surprising twists and more horrific scenes (such as the famous wood chipper scene) and made them all the more surprising and/or horrific. The show and its writers clearly yearn to do the same thing, but this plodding effect may not be able to sustain over the long haul of several episodes in one season, as it undercuts keeping the viewer engaged – after all, the overall story will be meted out over something shy of ten hours versus the approximately two of the film. This viewer felt my attention wandering as the initial hour pressed on, though the payoff was more or less worth it, when Lester’s darker impulses emerged to the forefront in the end.
The other potential pitfall attached to the televised version of this story, or the story like the story that could be based on something true, is where the focus truly rests. The viewer has been offered some reason to care about Lester, the equivalent of William H. Macy’s character in the film, an innocent “loser” type who is convinced to bite off more than he can chew even as he keeps trying to eat the whole meal anyway, but where do the other characters come in? Molly is clearly the Margie equivalent, Frances McDormand’s character in the movie, but this actress lacks the earthy charms of McDormand’s Margie; she’s smarter than her boss but does not have the quick witted balance and direct delivery that made Margie so lovable. The pilot failed to offer up a character, other than Lester, to cheer for and/or follow with engaged interest because Lorne’s motivations are currently steeply cloaked in mystery and lack an element to which to relate (so far), and Molly is not as basically endearing as the pregnant cop in the film. The body count is still high in this version, thankfully, or there would be no where to go in this wacky wilderness, but this viewer felt that the pilot played it oddly conservative, trying to be separate from the film that inspired it while using similar character archetypes and less interesting story scenarios, to less than stellar effect. I feel like bigger risks should have been taken, at least to engage viewers in this first episode – then again, the character of Lorne or some other story telling device may be just down that northern road, ready to produce twists or horrors beyond measure – maybe something is in the offing that will help the show to stand apart from the film that shares its name.
To that end, there is some interest, mostly in the mystery, to keep this viewer watching. I like Lester a lot, and it is his character that I want to know about the most. Where will he go, and what will he do, after what he’s done? On the other hand, will there be enough story potential to sustain a full season – even beyond, depending on how the “limited series” format is fleshed out? I’m behind, so only loyal viewers with all aired episodes under their belts can answer that question from this vantage point. I will keep watching for now, as curiosity, more than anything else, urges me to do so.
Fargo is recommended to anyone who enjoyed the film of the same name and/or the Coen brothers’ general body of work. They are clever writers, who tend to explore dark themes with a sneaky levity that makes you question whether or not you should really be laughing and/or enjoying what you’re seeing. People who enjoy black comedies in general, such as Death Becomes Her, will also likely enjoy Fargo. The funny in this show is more ironic than “haha.”
THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW:
Fargo enjoys generally soft ratings, which is not unusual for a niche show on a cable network. The program is being billed as a “limited series,” meaning there could be an option to renew, but even if it was renewed, season one would stand on its own (for example, each season of American Horror Story is a new limited series). No word on renewal or any other decision has been reported, so let’s see how it fares. Seven of ten episodes have aired as of the writing of this entry.