“I don't watch movies,” declares Lorne Malvo, the slippery, malevolent figure at the center of FX's new “Fargo” series. (The first of 10 episodes debuts tonight at 10; I've seen the first four.) The line rings true to what we have learned about Malvo, a professional hitman and amateur troublemaker who takes pleasure in encouraging people's worst impulses to see what will happen. But it also functions as a sly acknowledgment of the large shadow “Fargo” the movie casts over “Fargo” the TV show.
Created by Noah Hawley (a “Bones” alum who created the charming but short-lived ABC cop show “The Unusuals,” starring a then-unknown Jeremy Renner), the new “Fargo” takes place in the same frozen Minnesota winter of the Coen brothers' Oscar-winning film(*), though it is not a remake of that film's story. Still, there are many nods to the movie both big and small – each episode, for instance, opens with a bogus “This is a true story” disclaimer, just like the film (this one's set in 2006) – and several of the characters share DNA with their cinematic predecessors. We again have a frustrated salesman who gets mixed up in crime, only here it's Martin Freeman from “Sherlock” as bullied insurance man Lester Nygaard. And though the friendly police chief is about to become a parent, in this case it's male cop Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle), while his young protege Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is more of the Frances McDormand figure.
(*) Joel and Ethan Coen are credited producers on “Fargo,” but mainly in the sense that they gave their blessing to the project.
Given what a great and unique creation the film is, it would seem folly for another creator to try to enter this world of “uff da”s and endless winter. At best, you might come off as a competent imitator of two of the best, most idiosyncratic filmmakers of our age.
Yet somehow, Hawley and company (including Adam Bernstein, who directed the pilot) do much better than that, especially after the first 20 minutes or so are done reminding you of the archetypal characters from the movie. This is not the improbably perfect 98-minute blend of brutal crime and quirky humor that the movie was, but nor is it a pale, delayed copy, either. Over the course of the first four episodes (and hopefully over the remaining six), the TV “Fargo” establishes itself as its own wonderful thing that is connected to the movie without being a recreation of it, and that doesn't seem unworthy of the name.
For starters, there is Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton (who has worked with the Coens a time or three himself). He's the sort of character who doesn't exist in the film, and yet instantly belongs in this extended “Fargo” universe. There's a calm stillness to Malvo (who goes by many other names) that makes him both an instant threat and a great figure of dark comedy. Thornton underplays the role masterfully, so that you can see the joy he takes in winding other people up to do bad things even as he seems entirely reasonable to them, and so that you believe he could terrify a cop like Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) while maintaining an even, gentle tone throughout their encounter. He's not a clone of Anton Chigurh from the Coens' “No Country For Old Men” (though both men have terrible haircuts), but the effect he has on those around him – and his absolute confidence that he cannot be stopped from doing what he wants – is similar.
“Your problem is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules,” Malvo tells poor Lester Nygaard after bringing some chaos into his life. “There aren't. We used to be gorillas. All we had was what we could take and defend. Truth is, you're more of a man today than you were yesterday.”
Hawley (who, like Nic Pizzolatto on “True Detective,” is credited with writing all the episodes) lays out a tangled story that has room for plenty of cops (including Bob Odenkirk, productively filling the time between “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”), a pair of out-of-town killers (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard), a smug supermarket mogul (Oliver Platt), a dim physical trainer (Glenn Howerton from “Always Sunny”), a bitter mob wife (a lively, funny Kate Walsh), Molly's retired cop father Lou (Keith Carradine) and Gus's clever daughter Greta (Joey King), among others. It never feels overstuffed or hard to follow, but rather like a fully-realized universe that we'll need 10 hours(**) to properly explore.
(**) All the episodes I've seen are longer than a standard basic cable drama episode – the pilot is scheduled to run until 11:37, with commercials – yet they do not drag in the way that some other FX shows do when they're allowed to go into overtime. I left each episode wanting more time spent in Bemidji, Duluth, etc.
The regional accent deployed in the movie and now the show seems ripe for parody – even today, the movie has detractors who say the Coens were mocking the locals, even though Marge Gunderson is perhaps the single most admirable character they've ever written – and Freeman's attempt at it is a bit wobbly, even as he nails the desperation and ennui that define Lester in the early going, and then his shock at the circumstances he finds himself in as the plot becomes more complicated. (There are moments where the show owes as much to “Breaking Bad” as it does to the film.) Tolman's a virtual unknown, but won't be for long, given what a warm, expressive performance she gives as Molly, who's much cagier than most of her colleagues assume. And the relationship between Goldberg (whom Hawley worked with on “The Unusuals”) and Harvard feels unlike any criminal twosome of its type I've seen before, even in the midst of a show that is otherwise cleverly rearranging familiar pieces of the movie and other crime stories.
And like the movie that inspired it, the TV “Fargo” is a sharp student of human nature, and the ways the same chilly climate could produce three such disparate individuals as Lorne Malvo, Lester Nygaard and Molly Solverson.
After a violent crime has been committed, Lester wonders aloud, “I just keep asking myself, 'Who could have done a thing like this?'” Given the presence of some fundamentally decent characters like Molly, the show's answer is not “Anyone,” but it's still “More people than you might imagine.”
“Fargo” is being billed as a “limited series,” a phrase that has a slippery definition at best in 2014. This story will be resolved in 10 episodes. If it's a success, FX could bring it back where it would be like “True Detective” or the channel's own “American Horror Story” and feature an entirely new cast of characters. Or this title could be left to stand on its own and perhaps Hawley might do something elsewhere in the Coen universe – or something wholly original – a year from now. Given the high degree of difficulty of adapting the original “Fargo,” and how nimbly Hawley turns it into its own exciting thing, I have no presumptions for what I'd want him to do next. I just know I want to see whatever it is, now.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org