TV adaptations of movies are often spotty because the films people want to adapt tend to be so good that it’s hard for the shows to live up to their reputations. For every Friday Night Lights or M*A*S*H or Buffy that actually managed to outdo its inspiration, the TV graveyard is littered with dozens upon dozens of failures that, if they’re remembered at all, it’s only so we can again ask, “Who thought this was a good idea?”
FX’s Fargo seemed to point a new way forward, by adapting the spirit of the beloved film, along with some broad details (pregnant Minnesota cop, resentful local salesman), but not worrying about doing a straightforward translation. Given both the strength and specificity of the source material, it was a show that had no business working, only it did (for two wonderful seasons, at least, followed by a more uneven third).
Epix’s Get Shorty is adapting a slightly less acclaimed, but still beloved, mid-’90s film, and also taking the Fargo “inspired by” approach. In taking on both the Elmore Leonard novel and the 1995 film starring John Travolta, Dennis Farina, and Danny DeVito, the new version keeps the core concept of “mob enforcer decides to be a movie producer,” but changes everything else.
And, in the process, it shows that copying the Fargo model of not copying the film is harder than it looks.
Our wiseguy for the series (it debuts Sunday night at 10; I’ve seen five episodes) is Miles Daly (Chris O’Dowd), an Irishman somehow working as an enforcer for Pahrump, Nevada crime boss Amara (Lidia Porto). During a stop in LA to collect a debt, he falls into possession of an unsold screenplay that he sees as a way to both reconcile with his ex-wife and daughter, and help Amara find a new way to launder her money(*). Through a mixture of charm, threats, and sheer brute force, Miles and his reluctant partner Louis (Sean Bridgers) rope in basement-dwelling movie producer Rick (Ray Romano), high-strung studio exec April (Megan Stevenson), and an eccentric director (Peter Stormare, who first broke through in America in… Fargo).
(*) Between this and Netflix’s Ozark, it’s a big summer for shows about guys who come up with outlandish schemes to launder drug money.
“Everybody in show business has a different story about how they broke in,” Miles insists to Louis. “Maybe this is our way!”
Creator Davey Holmes (Shameless, In Treatment) was wise to not aim directly at the movie, but his replacement ideas are a mixed bag. The film works in large part because Travolta, writer Scott Frank, and director Barry Sonnenfeld make you believe that Chili Palmer is both a charismatic guy who wants to make a movie, but also a stone killer who can almost casually destroy anyone who stands in his way. Miles is positioned as a family man looking for a way out of his chosen profession, which softens the role enough to perhaps better fit both O’Dowd and the series’ format — though “Make him more sympathetic by giving him a wife and kid” seems like the kind of network note someone would have given in the days of the movie, not after its co-star James Gandolfini moved to TV for The Sopranos — but knocks the tone of the series off-kilter. One minute, Miles’ desire to reunite with his family, or Louis’ growing interest in showbiz, or Rick’s desire to prove he can do more than make straight-to-video exploitation schlock, will be taken absolutely seriously, and the next, someone will get shot in the head as the punchline to a scene. It doesn’t quite work as either black comedy or something more sincere.