Just as the film from which its adaptation began, ‘Fargo’ the television series starts with the text: “This is a true story.” It’s one of the myriad ways showrunner Noah Hawley has attempted to emulate, recreate, and expand the Coen brothers sublimely enthralling Oscar-nominated 1996 film.
While the talented sibling filmmakers have given their approval, the series, which is billing itself as a 10-hour movie and is a limited series in the vein of ‘True Detective,’ doesn’t come as close to the film as it would like, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad though. ‘Fargo’ sprawls and is more than worthy of a 10-episode exploration.
Instead of Jerry Lundegaard, it’s Lester Nygaard here in the FX adaption who is the frustrated, bumbling insurance salesman (instead of cars, it’s life, fittingly). Bullied by the world in which he lives, allowing his wife, old acquaintances, and teenagers to shoot him down, Nygaard is instantly sympathetic and almost hopeless. It helps too that British actor Martin Freeman is perfectly cast and delivers such an endearing and relatable performance.
Enter Lorne Malvo, a very creepy Billy Bob Thornton with bangs, to shake things up. This slight figure with a menacing stare is a drifter, a sort of capricious instigator who looks to set right the wicked and smug, while setting free the oppressed and frustrated.
Nygaard would be in the latter category, and the momentary meeting in a hospital with Malvo upends his world; he is both terrified and invigorated by what is soon to take place. That is, ‘Fargo’s quiet, slow pace is punctuated by moments of bloody violence and uncontrollable rage.
It’s all strangely captivating, but sometimes it’s not that you can’t look away so much as you really can’t wait for something to happen because nothing is happening at all. ‘Fargo’ slips and slithers and patiently, casually meanders through a quite literally chilling expanse.
Which is the issue with the concept of the “10-hour movie.” It may or may not be Netflix that introduced (or most recently re-introduced) the viewing public to this notion, which basically means you’re watching a very lengthy story that has the value and feel of a movie, but one that you can watch in your leisure. However, Netflix, when doing something like this, with ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ or even its ugly cousin ‘Hemlock Grove,’ would make available every episode available all at once.
Ultimately, this is one point where ‘Fargo’ suffers. It’s not that it’s a slowly steeping cup of tea – it’s that you are forced to wait to enjoy it, and by then it’s already cold. The first four episodes were made available to critics, and instead of watching it one week at a time (why?), I enjoyed them across a pair of days – and it’s a far more rewarding viewing experience than I imagine waiting a month. It’s easy to question whether each individual episode does enough to bring back a viewer a week later.
There are plenty of characters from which to jump around each episode, even though the premiere eliminates some people we just got to meet(go figure). Outside of Nygaard and Malvo, most of the characters come across as caricatures, closer to being mocked then they are to being regarded; it’s the whole ‘Minnesota Nice’ thing.
Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is the intrepid police deputy (if you’re connecting the ‘Fargo’ productions, she would be Frances McDormand) in the quaint town of Bemidji, but even she early on comes across as in over her head. The police chief treats her as a fragile flower and another superior, Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk), looks down on her, but mostly because he hasn’t a clue.
Molly is winning though, and she crosses path with more or less her male counterpart, Gus Grimly. Played by Colin Hanks, Gus is a Duluth police officer, and he too encounters havoc wrecked by Malvo, but this young cop and single father is more interested in keeping his own head and taking care of his 12-year-old daughter.
Most others are just silly. All the townspeople become all about their accent than anything else; they’re novelties. A pair of contract killers (Adam Goldberg and Russell Havard), who go by the great names of Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, appear to investigate one of the strange deaths, while Oliver Platt’s rich and arrogant supermarket baron becomes the subject of Malvo’s ploys. There is also a flirtatious widow (Kate Walsh), an awkwardly-tanned trainer (Don Chumph), and for at least one scene, a divorced woman who went on one of the most digusting of dates.
Still, ‘Fargo’s strengths – great acting, offbeat mood, and a cold, isolated tone – exceed its shortcoming (the bar is set high here too). Surely the many moving parts of the layered story will come together, but in the cold and still of the Great Plains one must be patient.
‘Fargo’ premieres Tuesday, April 15 at 10/9c on FX.