TV Review: Fargo Season 1 (2014) — The Small-Screen Adaptation of the Coens Classic is a Worthy Successor


“This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

That looks familiar doesn’t it? The fictional disclaimer which opened the 1996 Coens Brothers classic film Fargo also appears in the TV series that bears the same name, not following the same characters from the quirky crime classic, but instead a similar tone in the recognisable, snow-covered landscape of the mid-American USA/Canada border.

Key and Peele! Inspired casting!

Key and Peele! Inspired casting!

In theory, a TV spin-off of the seminal Fargo is a terrible idea with impossible standards to live up to. What kind of arrogance makes a person believe they can adapt the perfect blend of whimsical characters and chilling violence? A film that exposed the vile underbelly of seemingly normal people in small towns? But showrunner and writer Noah Hawley did the impossible; not only did he create a show that is loyal in spirit and tone, but he created a stand-out TV show in what is currently a golden era of magnificent TV drama.

It was a ballet of dark comedy, uneasy tension and extreme acts of violence which made the 1996 film unique and popular. These aspects are spread evenly throughout the 10-episode season, and just when you let your guard down due to a moment of levity or some snappy dialogue, the show instantly flips the switch into a ferociously intense and bloodthirsty crime-drama. The biggest mistake while watching Fargo is to become too attached to the characters, because not only are they mortally unstable as the body count piles up over ten episodes, but they may soon become morally reprehensible, forever ruining the character you once called your favourite.

The theme of Fargo is corruption. When the car of the violently cerebral Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) breaks down in rural Bemidji, Minnesota, he encounters the put-upon Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a man experiencing unbelievable harassment personally and professionally. Lester is a man at a breaking point, and his short alliance with the sinister Malvo gives Nygaard the confidence to finally take a stand, leading to a series of grisly events which drive the tight 10-episode run of the first season.

Evil incarnate (plus Hanks Jr!)

Evil incarnate (plus Hanks Jr!)

The main characters are all memorable and extremely well written. Lorne Malvo is evil personified, and I was constantly amazed with how much malice Thornton delivers with every line of dialogue and every dead-eyed stare. Malvo is produced with shades of the Coens own Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) — a relentless force of malevolent nature, who with each episode is constantly surprising with the depth of his cunning, violence and manipulation. He is consistently one-step ahead of all other characters and has a contingency plan for seemingly every situation. The reach of his actions are felt by all characters in the series. Even when the connection is at its most tenuous, every event in the show can be traced back to Malvo’s influence. He is a character that I would easily rate amongst the best bad guys ever realised on TV or film.

When it comes to protagonists, they don’t come any better than good cops Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks). I was especially pleased to see not only a strong female police officer in the lead role to match that of Frances McDormand’s superb Marge Gunderson, but a strong pregnant female police officer to match Gunderson. Solverson and Grimly are two of the most genuinely likeable TV leads that I’ve seen in a long time, and in an environment where TV dramas tend to focus on the anti-hero, Fargo is proof that TV leads don’t have to necessarily be morally ambiguous to garner and retain the audience’s interest.

Lester: Love to hate, or hate to love?

Lester: Love to hate, or hate to love?

Rounding out the main cast is a surprisingly complicated and dark turn from Martin Freeman playing the exploitable Lester Nygaard; the show’s closest parable to the film’s Jerry Lundegaard (the similar names kind of give it away, right?). I never realised Freeman had the chops to pull off such a morally complex character, but man, he knocked this one out of the park! He borders the line of sympathy incredibly, and just as soon as you begin to feel sorry for the guy as he desperately attempts to stop his life spiralling out of control, his inherent selfishness, lies, manipulation, and arrogance make you realise that you are witnessing a despicable human being being formed right in front of your eyes. He’s not 100% evil personified like Malvo, but viewing the complexity of Nygaard’s character as it sways between the escalating body count — directly or indirectly by his hand — is fascinating stuff and solid, engrossing television.

The rest of the cast is filled with a fun mix of talented comic and dramatic actors, including Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Keith Carradine, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jordan Peele, amongst many others. The quality of writing certainly drew the acting talent to this one.

The show is full of creative and visually impressive scenes, with a few highlights including a gunfight which takes place in a white-out snowstorm, and 22-man homicide in a multi-story post office shown only from the outside of the building, panning blindly across the windows as the action takes place inside. You would expect a show like Fargo to focus on the characters, which it mainly does, but it is also has a striking visual flair and shot with imaginative zest.

There is a moment in the series that absolutely blew my mind because it tied up an unresolved plot-point from the 1996 film: whatever happened to the suitcase of ransom money that a desperate Steve Buscemi buried in the snow? I recently re-watched the film and was struck with how accurately the series shot and designed the isolated burial site of the money. This was definitely moment where I — as a Coens fan — absolutely geeked out, but it’s a shame that the briefcase sub-plot was ultimately inconsequential to where the show was headed.

Fargo has been renewed for another season next year, and I am pleased to learn that it will take on the increasingly popular serial format, with Season 2 featuring an entirely new cast and storylines. I prefer thins method of television because it gives the writers a definitive end-point to their story, without having to pad it out and needlessly extending the universe if popularity dictates. The second series looks to be set in the 1970’s, and may follow the retired Solverson patriarch Lou in his prime. Remember the intense scene in the diner between Solverson and Malvo, where a discussion of an incident in the 70’s takes place? That could be our Season 2!

Llama Score: 9What a pleasant surprise Fargo is! It has all the intensity, violence, humour, and amazing character development that made the film a classic. With an engossing story and a highly entertaining cast, Fargo is the best show this year (sorry, True Detective). Highly recommended, but beware, it’s sometimes not for the squeamish, despite its light veneer.

Award: Golden LlamaAward: Recycle

Highlights Banner

– Lorne Malvo. Everything Lorne Malvo.

– Lester Nygaard’s slow descent into ruthless desperation.

Lowlights Banner

– The Oliver Platt storyline was ultimately a bit pointless. Maybe it’s just because I don’t care for Platt all that much.

Further Viewing Banner

Fargo (1996)

Showrunner: Noah Hawley Written by: Noah Hawley Produced by: Kim Todd, Chad Oakes, Michael Frislev Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Martin Freeman
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