The best way to begin to describe what Fargo is to start with what it isn’t. The new FX series (premieres April 15) is not a remake of the 1996 Coen brothers movie--though the brothers are executive producers and the Minnesota settings and accents (uffda!) are largely the same. The core story involves a mild-mannered salesman who falls into a life of crime, though it’s not car salesman Jerry Lundegaard but insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), and the crime is not the staged kidnapping of his wife but--ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The best way to describe Fargo is to say what Mark Twain reputedly said about history. It doesn’t repeat, but--dark, off-kilter, and bitingly funny--it rhymes.
This Fargo has plenty of callbacks to the original--listen for the reference to “unguent”--and it begins as the movie does, with a disclaimer that the events (here set in 2006) are based on a true story. That story centers on Lester, whom a convincingly accented Freeman plays like Bilbo Baggins’ unhappy, stammering American cousin. He’s 40 and looks 50; he sputters through unpersuasive insurance pitches by day and gets berated by his disappointed wife by night. “Sometimes I tell people you’re dead,” she tells him, and to look at him, who’s to say she’s wrong?
The invisible “Kick Me” sign Lester wears on his back is easily read by his former high-school bully, who runs into Lester one day and picks up where the two left off. The encounter lands Lester in the hospital, where he meets Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a soft-spoken stranger who happens to be in town for a contract killing. Malvo offers Lester help, with a side of Darwinian philosophy: “If you don’t stand up, let them know you’re still an ape, deep down where it counts, you’re just going to get washed away.”
Malvo--showrunner-writer Noah Hawley (The Unusuals) had a good old time with the names here--is a hit man by trade, but his real avocation is temptation; he moves through the world moving people to bad acts like a mad scientist of immorality. Thornton, who starred for the Coens in The Man Who Wasn’t There, makes him instantly seductive, impish, and terrifying, the devil with James Lipton’s beard. There’s something otherworldly about him, like a fairytale spirit or Twilight Zone alien sent to Earth to test humanity. (Spoiler alert: humanity is found wanting.)
This being a 10-episode "limited series," Malvo is just one of the expansions enlarging this Fargo. A second criminal plot involves Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt), a blustering grocery store kingpin being blackmailed. The film role of cop Marge Gunderson is essentially split in two: Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), a dogged Bemidji deputy frustrated by her deadweight boss Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk); and Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks), a low-ranking Duluth cop trepidatious of what he’ll find when he turns over the rock of this case. And Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard steal scenes as Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, a thug and his deaf partner who echo Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s mercenaries. (In the four episodes shown to critics, characters played by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have not yet been introduced.)
The major weakness--and one it’s getting tiresome to note in drama after drama--it’s the writing of several characters’ wives, who are portrayed as ballbusters, opportunists, or both. In an antihero-TV culture where subcultures of fans have ganged up on the likes of Breaking Bad’s Skyler and Sons of Anarchy’s Tara, trashing them as bitches and buzzkills who get in the protagonists’ way, intentionally or not these characterizations feel like they’re ratifying that attitude. It’s not as if most of the men here are any less caricatured (as in the movie, it’s a stylistic choice and takes a while to adjust to) but there are more of them and they get more screen time to develop. Freeman, to extend the Hobbit analogy, may start off Bilbo-ish, but he grows into a more interesting, guilt-wracked Gollum figure.
As the series itself develops (it was somewhere in episode 3 that I really got on board), all these broad-strokes characters add together into a more complex whole. This Fargo is seriously funny--you need to hear a sputtering Platt yell “Eat a turd! Is my response!” But it’s wrestling with moral questions Biblical in scale. What happens when decent folks are too timid to stand up to evil? Why is brutality so alluring? (With his talk of “predators” and “being a man” Malvo is the voice of everyone who saw Walter White as a hero, taken to a logical extreme.)
Indeed, after a few hours, Fargo feels not just like an adaptation of one Coen brothers movie but many: it has hints of No Country for Old Men, which pitted fallible humans against a seemingly unstoppable evil, and A Serious Man, which asked what it would be like if God were active in our world, an Old Testament God who laid tests and rendered judgment. (Not to mention, Always Sunny’s Glenn Howerton as an ineptly scheming personal trainer is a figure straight out of Burn After Reading.)
FX’s Fargo, shot in Alberta, uses landscapes better than any TV drama since Breaking Bad; its frozen lakes and snowpack vistas and boundless blue skies feel exposed, as if an all-powerful eye is constantly watching. And maybe it is. After a freakish turn of good luck in a flashback, Stavros mutters, “God is real.” The statement is half awe-struck, half terrified. Because if God is real, so is damnation, and it’s as plentiful as the drifting snow.