Fargo: The Crocodile’s Dilemma review

The first episode of FX's Fargo TV series pays homage to the Coen Bros. while trying to form its own identity. Here's Nick's review.

Fargo, the new FX series, is not that same Fargo you remember from 1996, unless you only remember snow, funny accents, funnier dark comedy, and some chaotic violence, then otherwise, yes, it’s exactly the same as you remember it. Except it isn’t a carbon copy. FX’s new Fargo claims to be bringing you an all-new foray into the world of Minnesota true crime, but “entrenched in trademark humor, murder and ‘Minnesota Nice’ that made the film an enduring classic,” according to the press release that was sent out to journalists.

They are right about one thing; Joel and Ethan Coen’s original film is a modern classic. The location shots are beautiful, the film has wicked comedic tone, and the performances are incredibly memorable. The tag says the new series is “entrenched” in the same, but that’s only a nice way of saying that it borrows those familiar feelings and charms and uses them to sell yet another American crime, anti-hero centered story. To put it bluntly, networks are chasing each other to find the new Breaking Bad, the anti-hero is in, and if piggybacking on the warm memories of a familiar product will help FX’s chances, then they’re willing to go there. I’m not saying the series isn’t in good hands; the Coen’s are on board as executive producers, and showrunner/writer Noah Hawley (Bones) seems to have tapped into the spirit well enough here in the pilot, but other moments pass the point of being homage.

If you’re a fan of the original film and anything like me, you’ll be caught up in making comparisons, and trust me, there are tons. The desolate, dark open roads at night, the stark overhead shots, familiar score, and Martin Freeman’s turn as the William H. Macy surrogate character Lester Nygaard. Freeman (Sherlock, The Hobbit series) eerily sounds almost identical to Macy, only maybe a little less chirpy, but he bumbles and rambles all the same. The one thing that makes the characters different is that Lester’s got things a little worse. Forget having an angry father-in-law, plenty of people deal with that; Lester has a wife that downright emasculates and verbally abuses him, a former classmate named Sam Hess bullying him, and a successful younger brother who gives him no respect. One thing about the show that is kind of irksome is that every character is boiled down to these archetypes – saps, bullies, cops, and robbers. You’re a good-natured dimwit, a mean-spirited dimwit, a good guy, or a bad guy, there’s no in between.

After an altercation with Hess in front of Hess’ own lunk-head kids, Lester ends up in the hospital next to a peculiar man named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). Thornton’s arrival on television in a role like this makes so much sense. His character is almost like if you boiled Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s parts down from the original into one guy. He’s mischievous, facetious, irreverent, and threatening and seems to generally be having a good time here. Malvo convinces Lester to quit being such a pushover, then asks if he would like him to kill Hess. Lester doesn’t say yes, but he doesn’t say no, and that’s all Malvo needs. The scene is beautifully framed by director Adam Bernstein, with the camera slowly centering in as Malvo probes Lester.

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The ensuing violence and disorder, resulting in the deaths of Hess, Lester’s wife, and a good police chief expecting a baby (sad, but heavily foreshadowed) is brought to you in the arty bloodbath way that the Coens would do it, and it is pretty captivating stuff. If you have been looking for shocking violence that isn’t incredibly exploitive, pointless, and absent minded (looking at you, The Following) this may be the show for you. Fargo is fun and definitely earns some laughs and gasps, but until I see some more of it, I’m still not entirely comfortable with the cheap association that is being used to sell it. I might sound like I’m doing to much comparing, but frankly, it is really hard not to, what did they expect would happen?

The Best of the Rest

– Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is the head police officer on the case, now that her boss, who was priming her as his replacement, is gone. Molly gets the tip on Lester by inquiring at the hospital about anyone mysterious with a head injury. Malvo crashed his car hitting a deer the night before during a hit, and Molly suspects the driver would have needed hospitalization. The nurse tells Molly the man was talking with Lester about Sam Hess after Hess turns up dead.

– Lester really had my sympathy before he murdered his wife. Boy was she sure cruel. And the bullying scene really made me feel sorry for the little guy. Lester really looked anguished and conflicted while bashing his wife’s brains out. Good stuff by Martin Freeman.

– The film’s use of the great Minnesotan accent is back. We got quite a few utterances of “heck” and the “Dontcha know” count was at one tonight.

– Bob Odenkirk plays a goofy, weak-stomached police officer. Maybe this is where Saul Goodman ended up.

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– Keith Carradine is Molly’s father Lou, an ex-cop and coffee shop owner who is concerned about his daughter’s safety. Something tells me pop is going to be brought into the action.

– Lester’s brother falls into the dimwit category, making some awfully ignorant remarks about the possibility of his son having autism. He also has an impressive gun collection, and it is revealed that Sam Hess may have been involved in an illegal weapons distribution ring. Connection? We’ll have to wait and see.

– Malvo is pulled over in nearby Duluth by officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) after killing the police chief and abandoning Lester. That marks two Dexter alumni (he and Carradine). Malvo uses bizarre intimidation, even mentioning Gus’ daughter who is radioing in during the scene, and Gus eventually lets Malvo drive off. Something tells me he’ll regret that.

– In another homage to the Coens, there’s a White Russian drink special at the bar.

– What is it with Coen Brothers properties that makes the bad guy have to have a terrible haircut?

– Malvo’s tricks on the Hess boys and getting the boy to pee in a gas tank were pretty entertaining and clever.

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– Brian Markinson (Mad Men) is Sam Hess’ lawyer or business partner, it seems, and he and Hess’ widow Gina (Kate Walsh, Private Practice) will likely be sticking around.

– Welcome to weekly Fargo coverage! I’ll be following the entire season and can’t wait to discuss the show!

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3.5 out of 5