April 23, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Fargo”


FARGO:  Tuesday 10PM on FX – DVR Alert

Previously… on FARGO:  It’s chance that puts mild-mannered, beaten-down Bemidji, Minnesota insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) beside sociopath Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) shortly after Lester had a run-in with the bully who made his high school years a living hell.  But when asked directly by Malvo whether he’d prefer the bully to be murdered or not, Lester sidesteps the question, and sure enough, the man is shortly thereafter stabbed in the head while exercising with a stripper at the local club, for no reason than that Malvo felt like doing it.  And it’s Lester’s hand on the hammer that soon bludgeons his own wife to death–although it’s Malvo who then shotguns the town sheriff.  That leaves idiot deputy Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) in charge of the sheriff’s office, but on the trail are quietly stubborn deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and over in Duluth, Officer and single dad Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks).

Episode 2:  Even though it technically has a new storyline and characters, it’s probably unavoidable that to an extent the TV version of Fargo feels like one of those imitation TV seasons that result when a show’s creator is off the scene, like Season 4 of Community and the new season of The Boondocks.  Writers and directors have been trying for decades to capture the special genius of Joel and Ethan Coen, but while their black comic tone can be replicated, their spectacular precision with images and words is theirs alone.  It’s also somewhat disconcerting that although the characters played by Freeman and Tolman, as well as some hoods from the Fargo (the city, not the movie) mob played by Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard, are clearly meant to be echoes of the roles taken by William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in the movie of Fargo, Thornton’s Malvo is straight out of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, as though one Coen Brothers masterpiece had been spliced into another.

Nevertheless, series creator Noah Hawley (who wrote both of the first two episodes himself) and episodes 1-2 director Adam Bernstein have done a very capable job of simulating the Coens’ universe.  Fargo the TV series has the same sense of whimsical yet inexorable doom that the brothers favor, and their mix of deadpan farce with a pitiless hand of fate.  (There’s a price for that:  the movie Fargo was merely a cult hit in 1996, earning just $24.6M in the US despite rapturous reviews and Oscars for McDormand and the Coens’ script, and the TV series, which is a limited 10 episodes for now, and would return American Horror Story-like with a new cast and story if reordered, is doing similarly in the ratings.)  Thornton is the best he’s been in years, Freeman is so good that one can forgive his forays to bloated Middle-Earth, and Tolman is a real find, while delicious players like Oliver Platt and Kate Walsh, along with Odenkirk and Goldberg, show up in smaller roles.

Episode 2 continued Molly’s dogged investigation into what connects the deaths of Lester’s wife and the sheriff to the bully’s murder (as well as a near-naked corpse found outside of town, also Malvo’s doing), and widened the world of the show too, introducing Goldberg and Harvard as Mr. Numbers and the (genuinely?) deaf Mr. Wrench, sent by Fargo to look into the death of the bully, who was tied in with the mob.  It also brought Malvo to Duluth, where the mob wanted him to asked him to look into the blackmail of supermarket king Stavros Milos (Platt), and where he convincingly bullied Gus and a post office clerk into doing what he asked.

As with the writing, the direction (and cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd) can only approach what the Coens and their ace Roger Deakins accomplished visually in the film, but good use is made of the barren snowy landscapes (actually shot in Canada) and banal small-town interiors.  The editing is true to its model by having patience with extended dialogue scenes and then leaping into quickly-cut action where necessary.  Jeff Russo’s score also does an exceptional job of recalling Carter Burwell’s great work with the Coens.

Fargo the TV show isn’t Fargo the movie, but it’s a loving attempt to come as close as first-rate workmanship alone can.  Its respect for its source pays off with a series worthy of its title.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."