It's Going to Be Hard for 'Fargo' to Seem Like Anything More than Coen Brothers Fan-Fiction

While the TV version goes down its own solitary snow-swept roads, its sprawling cast of characters featuring proxies for the film’s iconic figures.


Airtime: Tuesdays. 10pm ET
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Russell Harvard, Adam Goldberg
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: FX
Director: Adam Bernstein
Air date: 2014-04-15
“Some roads you shouldn’t go down.”

-- Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton)

On a dark, snowbound street in industrial Duluth, Minnesota, an earnest police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) pulls over a car for speeding and reckless driving. It seems a routine part of his job, but behind the mundanity lurks the specter of danger and violence. The car is driven by an intense, rootless criminal-for-hire Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) with the blood of no less than two (and arguably three) dead men already on his hands.

He doesn’t much feel like getting into an altercation with this mild-mannered Midwesterner, badge or no badge, and calmly asks the officer to return to his car and be on his way home to his daughter (he can hear her on a walkie-talkie in the squad car). He eventually asks him, with Manichean literality, to step into the light instead of stepping into the darkness.

This is the scene that ends the premiere episode of Fargo, a ten-part television re-envisioning of Joel and Ethan Coen's film. Written by Noah Hawley and directed by Adam Bernstein, with the Coens lending their blessing with an executive producer credit, the television show is also set in Minnesota and also offers a tale of criminals and brutality, an off-kilter tone, and, as the scene between Malvo and Grimly demonstrates, a stark depiction of moral choices. What it doesn’t share are the original characters and, most unfortunately, the movie's mix of wit and chill.

While the TV Fargo goes down its own solitary snow-swept roads, its sprawling cast of characters featuring proxies for the film’s iconic figures. Frances McDormand’s perky Marg Gunderson has a spiritual heir in Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), a small-town cop’s daughter with keen investigative skills. There’s also a beaten down, middle-aged man who winds up way over his head in the world of crime.

The show’s version of William H. Macy’s sad-sack Jerry Lundegaard is Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), an insurance salesman belittled by his wife (Kelly Holden Bashar), overshadowed by his younger brother (Joshua Close), and even bullied as an adult by his high school tormentor, now the successful owner of a trucking company. A chance hospital waiting room meeting between Nygaard and Malvo sets in motion a bloody series of killings.

As the show begins with the same facetious “true story” disclaimer as the movie, we're reminded that it was always going to be hard for this version to seem like anything more than Coen Brothers fan-fic. But this Fargo is too often tedious, a bit of a surprise considering the talent assembled here. Freeman's Lester is a nervous everyman with an impeccably rendered Minnesotan accent. Thornton hasn’t mustered this much twinkle-eyed malevolence since Bad Santa at least; Malvo is loads of dark fun, too easily manipulating every other individual he meets. And Tolman’s big eyes convey intelligence as well as bafflement at the eccentricity around her, not quite protected by her bulky parka.

If the characters resemble their precursors visually, so too does their environment, its Bemidji, MInnesota recalling both the snowy vistas of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the middle-class trappings of the Coens’ richly, drolly imagined regional setting. The show was shot in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, as apt a substitute for the real Minnesota as you could ask for, if you’ve made up your mind to ask for a substitute. (Even the Coens ended up having to shoot in North Dakota to get the snowscapes they envisioned, after all.) The series' second episode concludes with a superb sequence of a body disposal on a frozen lake that is shot, scored, and choreographed like a very fine deleted scene from the movie.

With all the homages and borrowings, we might wonder why the TV Fargo is so frustratingly uneven and generally, weirdly dull? Hawley’s film noir plot is reasonably Coen-esque in its twists and misunderstandings and character-motivated actions. But it can't match the extremely particular style of the inimitable and unpredictable Coens, a target Hawley apparently chose for himself and misses by a country mile.

Hawley's Fargo is an anthology-style story that will evidently resolve at the end of the last episode (he has called it “a 10-hour movie”). Following the introductory episode, the narrative quickly expands beyond Solverson’s investigation of Nygaard’s role in the murders to include Malvo smoking out a blackmail plot against a self-promoting regional supermarket magnate (Oliver Platt) and a pair of toughs (Russell Harvard and Adam Goldberg) arriving in town with an ominous mission.

But something’s missing. Fargo’s predominant problem is that it is resolutely, ineptly unfunny. The Coens punctuated their chronicle of chilly despondence and deep immorality with shafts of hopeful decency, as well as their signature quirky humor. Hawley takes a more generic approach, too familiar in TV, relying on slapstick or sometimes, on the actors' comic abilities to find the laughs in his words, but the result is inconsistent. It’s as if, like so many casual viewers of the original film, the show’s creative team considered the Minnesota Nice accent itself to be the source of the comedy, rather than what the characters were saying.

Like Malvo's odious but also somewhat facile contrast between light and darkness, this seems a superficial gloss rather than complex storytelling, a thin layer of snow instead of a deep-packed remnant of a creative blizzard.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.