When FX announced that it was turning the great Coen brothers movie Fargo into a TV show, fans of the filmmakers had reason to fear the worst. Every now and then, a film to TV or TV to film translation results in a classic — like both versions of M*A*S*H or the movie versions of The Untouchables and The Fugitive — but the result more often feels like a lackluster remake. Your Spidey sense may tingle in a bad way when you tune in to tonight’s FX premiere of Fargo, but if you’re watching closely and listening carefully, you’ll notice that this seeming copy is inexact. It feels subtly and unnervingly off and it takes a moment to register precisely how. Like the film, the show begins with a shot of a snowy wasteland, backed by an ominous score in a minor key. But the curtain isn’t rising on quite the same panorama, and the music only seems like it’s building into Carter Burwell’s now familiar main theme; it’s a different panorama and a different melody, and the net effect is unsettling for reasons you can’t quite place. It’s like waking from a dream, failing to remember the details, and filling in the gaps with your own inventions.
Both the setting and the characters pursue the “same/different” strategy. Yes, there’s a dissatisfied milquetoast suburbanite, but here it’s not William H. Macy’s car salesman, it’s a failing insurance salesman named Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman of Sherlock and The Hobbit movies. Both are trapped in unsatisfying marriages, but where the film’s character is suffering from father-in-law envy and general feelings of dissatisfaction, Lester is a henpecked husband who also lets himself be bullied by the same goon who terrorized him in high school. An overheated confrontation between Lester, his tormentor, and the man’s chortling dimwit sons lands him in the emergency room. And it is in the fluorescent-lit waiting area that Fargo the series veers away from Fargo the film and becomes more of a Coen Brothers 2.0, inspired by the filmmakers’ themes, humor, filmmaking style, and characters but not beholden to them. Lester finds himself seated next to Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), an insinuating, soft-spoken trickster character who’s the latest in a line of Coen brother id monsters stretching from Raising Arizona’s Leonard Smalls to The Ladykillers’s Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, Ph. D., to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. All of them, like Lorne Malvo, are essentially devils.
You could look for one-to-one correlations between the movie and the show, but as soon as you find one that feels close, series creator Noah Hawley severs the connection. The pregnant officer played by Frances McDormand at first seems to have been split into two characters, a sheriff played by Bob Odenkirk, and his deputy, a gung-ho patrol woman (Allison Tolman, one of the best out-of-nowhere acting finds in my lifetime as a critic), but by the end of the pilot you realize, delightedly, that the script was going someplace else entirely. The kidnappers of Fargo the movie seem to have been translated into two hired killers, a deaf mute (Russell Harvard) and his best friend who translates his sign language (Adam Goldberg); they have their own original energy. Ditto Oliver Platt as a local supermarket tycoon caught in a blackmail scheme, and Kate Walsh as the widow of a murder victim whom almost no one seems to miss; they seem not like Coen characters, but like characters who could be in as-yet-unmade Coen brothers movies, or at least one with Coen-like qualities. This distinction sounds minor, but it’s key to the show’s potential, which despite its flaws is considerable.
The pilot can be alienating, and not in a good way. It’s often too schematic, too obvious. The unrelenting abuse heaped on Lester by his wife is cartoonish; her harpylike shrieking, coupled with pay cable’s 278th annual visit to a strip club, will rightly open this Fargo to charges of misogyny. Lester’s bullies are also handled with less wit than we’d expect from people who’ve gone into business with the Coens. The brothers aren’t known for a light touch, but their caricatures are deepened by weird hints of compassion, sorrow, and wonder that this show never quite summons. In fairness, though, this might be because Hawley is not a Coen and has his own fish to fry, and the brothers decided to stand back and let him fry them.
The Coens are often accused of being misanthropic, a charge that I’ve often found unfair, or at the very least, simpleminded. This show, on the other hand, really is misanthropic, to the point that it nearly seems to be shaking its head in disbelief at all these poor schlubs who have no idea how close to death they are, and how little the world will miss them when they’re gone. That’s not an inherently bad thing — a lot of substantive artists seemed to hold great swaths of humanity in contempt — but it’s worth knowing going in, otherwise you’ll be rattled by those moments when Fargo seems to adopt the point of view of Thornton’s character, a Joker-like shit-stirrer who believes that, as Teach ranted in the play American Buffalo, there is no law, there is no right and wrong, the world is lies.
The last half-hour of the 90-minute pilot is the strongest section, because it develops a tone that could be described as Coen-esque, but does so organically, in a way that assures you that it will become its own thing. The next three episodes get incrementally weirder, stronger, and more original, to the point that you forget to measure this Fargo against its namesake, or against any of the Coens’ masterworks, and simply enjoy the odd, sour, frightening, occasionally splendid thing in front of you. Another good sign: Even though this Fargo rips through plot like a wood chipper, you needn’t worry that the show will have nowhere to go next season, because — like True Detective and American Horror Story — this is an anthology series, in which the unit of measure is the season rather than the episode. Certain characters and plotlines may continue. Others will drop. This is a smart move. Fargo is a smart show. Not pleasant, not kind, but smart. Ruthless.