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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Fargo (The Series)

When I first read that Fargo, the wonderful Coen Brothers movie, was being adapted into a TV series, I was not remotely interested.  Can you blame me?  When is the last time a good movie was successfully turned into a TV show that was remotely worth one’s time?  But then a funny thing happened.  This show I had completely dismissed started getting positive review.  Very positive reviews.  As 2014 drew to a close, I started seeing FX’s Fargo TV show listed on Best TV of the Year lists.  Again and again.  Had I made a mistake in writing off this show?  And so, at the very end of 2014, right before putting together my own Best TV of 2014 list, I watched the whole first season of Fargo.

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I was not at first bowled over by the pilot episode.  It was extremely well-made, gorgeously shot, and certainly filled with a wonderful ensemble of actors.  But I was surprised that this was the same show about which I had read such effusive praise.  I had two main problems with the pilot.

Number one, I wasn’t pleased by the way they seemed to take some of the iconic Fargo moments and characters and remove much of what, to me, had made them special.  A famous shot in Fargo is when a sleeping Marge (Frances McDormand) is awoken early in the morning.  We see Marge’s husband’s arm draped over her.  One of my favorite aspects of the film Fargo is the beautiful relationship between Marge and her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), which is a reverse of the standard movie-cop archetypes.  It’s the woman who is the tough, smart cop, and the man who is in the stay-at-home, supportive role.  But in the show, when we see that shot, it seems that we’re back to the usual archetype with it being the woman’s arm draped over a man: the police chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle).  How boring to take that great Fargo flip and to flip in back to the original cliche!  Things got worse for me when we actually got to the Marge (Frances McDormand) character — in the TV show, the character is called Molly (and is played by Allison Tolman).  In the film, we first meet Marge when she is investigating an abandoned car and a dead body that have been found by the side of the road.  Marge is sharp and gets right to the important details.  She is way ahead of all the other cops.  In the show, we meet Molly in a similar way, but here, she makes some mistakes in her deductions and has to be corrected by the man, chief Thurman.  I was surprised and bummed to see the show dilute the Marge/Molly character this way.

Number two, I was put off by the violence.  I don’t love violence in TV or movies, but that hasn’t prevented me from enjoying some violent movies and TV shows.  But I found the violence in the Fargo pilot to be very unpleasant.  Perhaps it’s the particularly brutal way in which some characters meet their end, particularly one who I really liked.  The violence in the pilot overshadowed, for me, any fun or quirkiness to be found in the show.  I had expected Fargo to be enjoyably off-beat, and so was surprised by what I felt was a very serious, very dour pilot episode.  I did not have fun watching that first hour.

I almost stopped watching after that first episode.  But my curiosity got the better of me.  I had read so much effusive praise of the show — what was that all about?  Surely the show had to get better!

I am glad I continued to watch, because I think Fargo grew into a wonderful show, and very enjoyable, complete crime story for television.

What I quickly realized is that, in turning Fargo — a pretty short movie — into a ten-hour TV show, creator and writer Noah Hawley very sensibly decided to give a strong character arc to the main characters.  Instead of showing us Molly as a fully-formed Marge-like character right off the bat, it is only over the course of the ten episodes that we see Molly grow into that strong character.   Looking back, that was undoubtedly the right choice.  And over the course of the ten episodes, we got all of the kooky weirdness that I had been hoping for.  (The remaining nine episodes have their fair share of unpleasantness, but I found myself enjoying the tone far more than I did in that original installment.)

The stand-out performer of Fargo is Billy Bob Thornton as the hit-man Lorne Malvo.  I have never enjoyed Mr. Thornton’s work more than I did here.  He is magnificent as Malvo, absolutely haunting and terrifying.  And he also delivers some of the series’ funniest scenes!!  It’s a rare actor who can pull off both ends of that range.  More than any character in the film Fargo, Mr. Thornton’s character reminds me the most of a character from a different Coen Brothers movie, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men.  Both Malvo and Chigurh are creatures totally divorced from all human emotion and connection.  They are almost alien in their cold-bloodedness and brutality, and complete lack of humanity.  Over ten episodes — heck, even by the end of the first! — I was completely captivated by Mr. Thornton’s work as Malvo.  He was a live wire, absolutely electrifying in every single one of his scenes.  Lorne Malvo is an iconic television character, and the most striking and successful aspect of the show, in my mind.

I was also very impressed by the lovely work of Allison Tolman as Molly.  I was unfamiliar with Ms. Tolman before this show, but she steps up to the plate and hits this role right out of the park.  It’s difficult to imagine another actress playing this role.  Most impressively, Ms. Tolman made me completely forget Frances McDormand’s magnificent work in the Fargo film.  Ms. Tolman gives Molly a toughness and also an innocence that is compelling.  Molly isn’t naive, but she has an inherent goodness.  This is a fine line to walk, and Ms. Tolman nails it.  Even more than in the Fargo film, the core of the TV show’s story is forcing this good person to face some truly horrifying, despicable acts of evil.  (By the way, that might be my favorite aspect of the adaptation.  In the film, I always wish we got to see a lot more of Marge!  But here in the show, despite my initial objections to the pilot as outlined above, Molly is properly front-and-center.)

I can’t believe that I haven’t yet mentioned Martin Freeman, since it was his involvement that was, at first, the only reason I might have had ANY interest in watching this show.  Mr. Freeman is spectacular as sad-sack Lester Nygaard (the TV show’s version of the film’s Jerry Lundegaard, played so memorably by William H. Macy). It only shows how great Billy Bob Thornton and Allison Tolman are that I mentioned them before Mr. Freeman!  Mr. Freeman has been known for playing the lovable but slightly pathetic underdog (in the British The Office to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to The Hobbit).  The genius in his casting here, and in his performance, is how Mr. Freeman starts off with Lester as someone the audience is rooting for, and then slowly twists his performance as Lester does some truly terrible things.  At what point does the audience stop rooting FOR Lester and start rooting AGAINST him?  That’s half the fun of Fargo.  (The other half is how great Mr. Freeman is at still making Lester a complex, fascinating character to watch, even once you have started rooting for his downfall!)

There are so many other great characters and great performers in Fargo.  One of the things I really grew to love about this show is the way the ten-hour format gives the story a lot of time to breathe, enabling us to big deeply into so many of these wonderfully bizarre, idiosyncratic characters.  I adored the work of Keith Carradine as Molly’s father, Lou.  I could have watched a whole show centered on this character!  (And apparently the writers had the same idea, as the plan is for season two to focus on Lou and whatever the heck it was that happened in Sioux Falls!  I love that.  The only down-side is that, because it’ll be a flashback, we’ll have another, younger character playing Lou.  Oh well!)  The most anxious I got in watching the entire run of Fargo was that moment, late in the season, when Malvo wanders into Lou’s cafe.  That was an incredible, stomach-churningly tense scene.

I loved Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard as Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, the show’s equivalent of the hit-man partners played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in the film.  I enjoyed how different the TV show’s hit-men were from the film’s version.  (And what a genius decision to make Mr. Wrench be deaf!)  It’s impressive how these two characters on the show became, for me, just as iconic as the two hit-men from the film.  I also loved seeing Colin Hanks as the amiable Duluth police officer Gus Grimley.  I didn’t know Mr. Hanks was in the show, and when he was first introduced in the pilot, only to meet Lorne Malvo, I thought for sure he was a goner.  But I’m glad Gus survived that encounter, as I loved seeing his character develop, and watching him eventually become John Carroll Lynch’s Norm Gunderson from the film was a hoot!

I haven’t even mentioned Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Key and Peele, Kate Walsh, Stephen Root, and so many other great actors!  Bravo to Noah Hawley and his team for assembling such a wonderful ensemble of actors and for giving them all such rich characters to play.  This show had a very deep bench!!

I’ve now written a lot about how characters from the show echoed characters from the film, and that was indeed a lot of fun to see when watching Fargo the show.  But I appreciated how independently the show functioned.  One doesn’t in any way have to have seen the film to enjoy the show, it stands completely on its own.

That being said, one of my favorite twists of the show was how, just when I’d stopped constantly comparing the show to the film and had settled down into just enjoying the show for what it is, then BAM!  Episode four, “Eating the Blame,” shines a spotlight on Oliver Platt’s character of Stavros Milos and suddenly, unexpectedly, connects the show to the events of the film in a way that blew my mind.  I absolutely loved that.  (And that episode landed on my list of my Favorite Episodes of TV of 2014!)

I love this new model of TV shows in which we get short seasons that tell a complete story, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.  I am excited for Fargo season two, but completely satisfied by Fargo season one.  Thank god this isn’t a show that made us wait until a second season to get resolution to the story from season one.  This structure seems to work particularly well for crime stories, and having both Fargo and True Detective in the same year was pretty incredible.

I am glad I stuck with Fargo to watch the complete first season.  It really grew on me, and after only a few episodes, I was entirely hooked into this story and this world and these characters.  I would love to see more.  Bring on season two.

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