Back in 1996, film writers and producers Joel and Ethan Coen gave moviegoers a unique gift when they brought “Fargo” to the silver screen. This incredibly original and masterfully quirky dark comedy starred William H. Macy as a down-on-his-luck car salesman whose plan to have a couple of thugs kidnap his wife so he can collect a ransom from her wealthy father goes terribly awry.
The movie earned seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and it collected on two of them. Frances McDormand deservedly won the best-actress Oscar for her marvelous portrayal of the pregnant-to-the-point-of-popping police officer Marge Gunderson, and the Coen brothers took home the coveted golden statuette for their original screenplay. Incidentally the Coens also are among the producers for the television series.
I really loved “Fargo,” and when I read that someone had decided to turn it into a television series, I was really apprehensive. Because the film was so good, I thought attempting to put any kind of adaptation of it on the small screen could turn out to be a huge flop. Was I ever wrong!
“Fargo” made its television debut on FX last Tuesday, and if the following nine episodes are as good as the pilot, writer Noah Hawley (“Bones”) has created an absolute masterpiece. The original episode featured excellent acting, superb writing, and brilliant humor. If you missed it, treat yourself and find it on demand immediately.
Allow me to apologize in advance for the intentional vagueness of my ensuing commentary on this series. Because the show was so good and contained myriad unexpected events and unanticipated bits of humor, I must guard against being carried away by the exuberance of my own verbosity and revealing too much lest I spoil it for you. I also will not be comparing the series to the film because I think such an approach is pointless. The television show stands on its own merits, as does the film.
Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is an insurance agent in Bemidji, Minn., where he lives with his nagging wife, Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar). Lester is basically a loser. He was the victim of bullying in high school, he’s not very good at his job, and he’s constantly in the shadow of his successful brother.
One day something happens that causes Lester to seek aid in the hospital emergency room, and while he’s waiting, he engages in conversation with a mysterious stranger named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton). And this chance encounter changes Lester life forever.
To say that Malvo’s arrival in town impacts a number of people in very unexpected ways is a gross understatement, but it is fair to say the place will never be quite the same again. In addition to being evilly manipulative, Malvo is quite adept at dispensing pearls of wisdom. Consider the following gem he shares with Lester, who epitomizes weakness.
“Your problem is you’ve spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t. We used to be gorillas. All we had is what we could take and defend.”
It seems as if some of the best things in the entertainment industry these days are the series being made for television, and “Fargo” is no exception. In fact, if this show maintains through its remaining nine episodes the standard set by the pilot, it will become one of very best series in the history of the medium.
As I said earlier, the acting is consistently outstanding from the main stars all the way through the minor supporting players. There’s not a single weak link in the cast that includes Kate Walsh, who is wonderful as the wife of the town bully. Colin Hanks (Yes, he’s Tom’s son.) also excels as Deputy Gus Grimly, who will become a major character as the series progresses, and Allison Tolman is irresistible in the part of Deputy Molly Solverson.
Sufficient superlatives do not really exist to describe how good Thorton and Freeman are in their respective roles. Thorton imbues Malvo with a delectably evil aura, and Freeman, who remarkably substitutes a Minnesota accent for his natural British one, plays the part of a milquetoast to the hilt. Michelle Stark of the Tampa Bay Times interviewed both actors, and a portion of her story appeared online. Among the questions she asked was how they each approached their respective parts.
“Well, you know, usually when you’re playing a character, you think a lot about their back story and that kind of thing and in this instance I didn’t want to do that because I doubt Malvo thinks much about his past anyway,” Thorton said. “He has this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people. I looked at Malvo as a guy who is a member of the animal kingdom, you know. He has a plan, and he knows where he has to go. It’s like an alligator. An alligator has to eat one day and so if somebody jumps in the swamp to take a swim he will eat them.”
“I like, as much as I can, to play everything, and I think within one line of dialogue you can play three different things, within one non-speaking reaction shot you can play three different things,” Freeman said. “I like to play, try and reflect the complexities of how we are in real life, which is we’re always thinking at least two things at the same time. So, certainly the overt dark side of Lester was something very attractive to me. You want to challenge people’s perceptions of you, and you want to challenge your own work and your own perceptions of what it is you do because it’s very easy to. Sometimes you believe your own reviews, and you go, ‘Oh, maybe I am an everyman.’ And I think, ‘Actually, no, I know I’m not.’”
In addition to stellar acting, “Fargo” offers dark humor at its best, innovative cinematography, terrific sets, and some of the best writing you’ll ever encounter on a television series. Although the current run is scheduled for 10 episodes, I read that perhaps the show might fall into a similar pattern with “American Horror Story,” in which each new season deals with a completely different subject. This show is just too damn good to end after just 10 episodes.
“Fargo,” which earns the final score of an unequivocal 10, airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Is it must-see TV? Oh yah!