Well, here’s an unlikely TV success story: take an old Coen Brothers movie, create a whole new cast of characters, and spin it off into a black humor crime anthology series. Honestly I’ve been so burnt out on reboots, relaunches, and reimaginings that Fargo slipped under my radar when it debuted, but now that I’ve seen it all I can say is holy fucking shit.
Modeled on the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film, Fargo takes place ten years later in Bemidji, Minnesota, and hinges on a fateful, Strangers on a Train encounter. Nebbish insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a hard-luck loser with a wife who hates him, living in the shadow of his successful younger brother. One horrible day culminates in him getting picked on mercilessly by his old high school nemesis, an incident that lands him in the emergency room. There Nygaard meets Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a highly peculiar criminal in town on shady business. Their innocent conversation turns sinister when Malvo asks Nygaard if he wants to see the bully who picked on him dead. Taking the question as hypothetical, Nygaard says yes…but the creepy encounter has imprinted on him, and spins him inexorably into a world of treachery, deceit, and murder. The resulting trail of crime falls to the understaffed, sleepy police department of Bemidji, where its most competent deputy, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), combats the ineffectual complaceny of her peers in pursuit of the truth.
And that’s just a fraction of what happens in Fargo; if it were a novel, writing the synopsis would be a living nightmare. Writer Noah Hawley has tapped into the spirit of the source material brilliantly to weave a Coenesque tapestry of violence, mayhem, understated dark humor, unpredictable left-turns, and narrative non sequiturs. Aside from the central Nygaard-Malvo conflict and Solverson’s crime-solving mission, there are side plots galore that ultimately entangle a dimwitted Duluth cop (Colin Hanks), organized crime hit men (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard), a supermarket magnate (Oliver Platt), and a pair of ineffectual FBI agents (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), among others. All the oddball characters and outrageous plot elements combine into a riveting, one-of-a-kind contraption. And while one major crux of the story — the Breaking Bad-ification of Lester Nygaard — is getting to be a tired old trope, the execution is simply superb, and there are plenty of supplemental storylines to augment that familiar narrative thrust. The most compelling of these, for me, is Solverson’s frustrating career struggle, negotiating a laid back old boys’ network in the face of their lazy indifference. If Nygaard and Malvo represent the dark malice of this fictional universe, Solverson is its inspiring, understated heart, giving you someone to root for even as you’re cringing in rapt awe at the atrocious behavior of the villains.
The show is perfectly cast and uniformly well performed, with the central trio really standing out. Thornton delivers an unbelievably creepy, pretty much legendary performance as the catalyst for everyone’s troubles. Freeman transforms himself impressively into an over-the-top Minnesotan, channeling vintage William H. Macy, while Tolman makes for a relatable and refreshingly unconventional hero. Among the supporting players I was particularly fond of Hanks (who I’m usually pretty lukewarm about), Bob Odenkirk as Molly’s good-natured but incompetent police colleague, and Keith Carradine as her stoic, retired cop father. But there isn’t an acting misstep to be found.
Unfortunately Fargo isn’t exactly a hotbed of well-rounded female characters, and in the grander scheme of “New Golden Age” TV it’s not particularly breaking any new ground. This is primarily another Men Being Horrible story, which is something of a thematic dead horse in the wake of The Sopranos and all that’s come after. Do we really need to explore this idea further? Well, I suppose this theme explains so many American ills, maybe we do…but it does make me wonder if everyone living vicariously through its villainous protagonists are processing the broader sociopolitical subtext.
In the face of Fargo‘s undeniable excellence in virtually every other respect, however, I can’t help but be inclined to be forgiving on this point. It’s just so beautifully shot, so full of unpredictable turns and chilling suspense setpieces, so rife with powerhouse performances , and its grimdark comic sensibility is just so pitch-perfect and unique. As self-contained seasons of modern television go, it’s damn near a masterpiece.