“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.