Fargo episode 1 review: The Crocodile’s Dilemma

Will Fargo work on the small screen? Here's Michael's spoiler-free review...

Last year, I wrote a piece appealing for originality in TV. It was in response to the trend for broadcasters to offer ‘new’ programmes that were remakes or reinterpretations of existing characters and ideas. My argument, while heartfelt, was hampered by the fact that so many of these reimaginings were so well made. Indeed, some of them are among the best shows of the current roster, which is a remarkable achievement considering that the source material, including Psycho, the BBC’s House of Cards and the Hannibal Lecter franchise, were so well admired. That exalted status is true also of Fargo, considered by many to be among the best of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, and now remade for the small screen.

Perhaps ‘remade’ is too strong a term. In contrast with the other shows referred to above, Fargo removes the original characters and plot and instead offers a new set of people to follow through their own set of bad decisions. While there are some similarities -Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard is not a million miles from William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard- the chief transposition is the film’s pitch-black humour and quirky worldview. It’s an understandable decision. Fargo, like American Horror Story and True Detective, has been planned as an ‘anthology’ series, introducing a new story every season which means that a deviation from the film’s plot is unimportant; what we’re here for is the peculiar ‘feel’ to the thing. To work, it needs to take its own path while continuing to be ‘Coen-ish’ enough to justify the connection.

On that measure, it succeeds. The show borrows the right things from the film and uses them smartly. There is a continued focus on conversations about minutiae such as malfunctioning washing machines, and characters have a similar tendency to repeat certain phrasings, often in unusual circumstances. There are more than a few weary expressions of ‘aw jeez’ and the word ‘ya’ is deployed frequently. Visual jokes abound, and it’s advisable to pay attention to the background details in the set. There is also, where it is necessary, quite a bit of bloodshed and sudden outbursts of violence that seem at odds with the folksy environment and the sing-song Nordic trill to the characters’ accents. It gives the show an unsettling quality that, while present in the film, can only become more pronounced over the much longer storyline offered by the multi-episode format. The effect is funny, shocking, tense and, in parts, even genuinely moving.

While the precise elements of the storyline are new, they do follow a familiar pattern, dragging a nervous but desperate everyman out of his comfort zone and into some very dark places indeed. Martin Freeman, the world’s favourite everyman, is cast here as Lester Nygaard, a loser of almost cartoonish proportions. He’s the sort of man who is still suffering at the hands of the school bully at the age of forty and whose barely conceivable marriage positions him less as husband than victim.

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The latest of a long succession of bad days brings Lester into contact with Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo, a softly-spoken, almost mythical figure who seduces the hapless insurance salesman into finally taking some action against his tormentors. Or rather, he doesn’t. Lester is such a weak-willed character that he cannot even say yes. His tragic fall comes more through a general his inability to say anything at all. The two men could hardly be more starkly contrasted, Lester is a orangey-beige ball of jittery, nervous energy while Malvo is dark and calmly insistent. He’s not simply difficult to handle, he’s almost physically impossible to say no to. Easily one of the best character debuts of the year, Thornton imbues Malvo with a barely disguised inner mirth, suggesting that the whole world is simply a joke being told for his amusement.  Thornton is mesmerising in every scene in which he appears, scenes which come often enough to squeeze his malevolence into every plot but at sparse enough intervals to leave the viewer wanting more.

The criminal nature of Malvo’s methods naturally attracts the attention of the local police, among them Allison Tollman as Molly Solverson, a naïve but enthusiastic young officer who finds herself unexpectedly drawn into very dangerous territory and Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk as Deputy Bill Oswalt, whose concern for his digestion hampers his efficacy at the crime scenes. The police are presented humanely and with significant warmth, both at work and at home. Their family lives are used for some of the show’s lighter touches and as a means of developing moments of genuine emotion that come as a welcome contrast to Lester’s hideously oppressive homelife.

Overall, the show works because of how well it balances these contrasts between good and evil, funny and sad, pathetic and quietly heroic. It retains a strong sense of familiarity with the original and will take some effort to fully escape the film’s long shadow, but there’s enough evidence here to suggest that, given time, it will and that maybe, just maybe, television remakes are not necessarily a bad thing.  

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