Apparently having run out of original ideas, just about every TV network has gotten in the game of producing new series based on old movies lately. Even among this recent proliferation, I don’t think that I’ve ever experienced the “Uncanny Valley” effect quite as strongly as I did while watching the premiere of FX’s new adaptation of ‘Fargo’ this week.
Based on the pilot episode, called ‘The Crocodile’s Dilemma’ (without explanation, though you can Google it), the show feels very much like the famous 1996 Coen brothers film in countless ways. Series creator Noah Hawley and director Adam Bernstein painstakingly ape the movie’s style and tone and quirky dark humor. The opening scene provides an intense feeling of déjà vu, right down to the totally bullshit claim that it’s a true story. And yet, the show is different in so many little ways that it just feels uncomfortably… off. It’s practically a remake of the movie, but at the same time it’s not at all.
The Coens are credited as Executive Producers on the show, though I don’t know how much hands-on involvement they really had beyond giving it a go-ahead. This is actually the second attempt to make a series out of ‘Fargo’. Back in 1997, Kathy Bates (yes, the actress) directed a pilot starring Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson. It didn’t get picked up, and Falco went on to do ‘The Sopranos’ instead.
Like the film, the new series does not actually take place in Fargo. The story is set in a small Minnesota city. Rather than Brainerd, it’s been moved to Bemidji. Although none of the specific characters from the movie appear, the character types will certainly be familiar. While there’s no Marge Gunderson, her personality and traits have been split among three different characters: police chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle from ‘Big Love’), his pregnant wife (Julie Ann Emery), and deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). Filling in for William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard role is Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard, a sad-sack insurance salesman with a failing career and a shrewish wife.
Events get underway when a mysterious hitman (I presume that’s what he is) named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) hits a deer on the highway and runs his car off the road. A mostly-naked man bursts out of the trunk and flees into the woods. He’ll be found frozen to death later. Malvo winds up in a hospital waiting room for a bruise on his head. That’s where he meets Nygaard, who managed to break his own nose while being tormented by an old high school bully named Sam Hess. Malvo takes an interest in his pathetic story, and tells Nygaard that he should kill Hess. Flustered, Lester stammers, “Why don’t you kill him?” Malvo offers to take him up on that. Lester doesn’t know what to make of this conversation, and walks off to see the doctor without saying either yes or no.
Malvo becomes an agent of chaos in the town, exerting his bad influence and bringing out the worst in everyone he meets. He kills Sam Hess, mostly just because he doesn’t like the guy. It turns out that Hess had ties to a gun-running ring in Fargo. That will undoubtedly come back around later. This murder sets in motion a chain of events that culminate with Lester killing his nag wife in a misguided attempt to stand up for himself. He then calls Malvo begging for help, but plots to ambush the man with a shotgun and pin the wife’s death on a home invasion. That plan is foiled, however, when Sheriff Thurman shows up at his door first to ask some questions about Hess. Thurman spots blood on the floor and finds the wife’s body. As he calls for backup, Malvo (who’s three steps ahead of everyone else) sneaks up from behind and kills the sheriff with Lester’s shotgun. Malvo leaves Lester to get caught by deputy Molly, but Lester is quick-thinking enough to smash his own head into a wall, knocking himself out so that it will look like he was attacked.
As the episode ends, we’re left with the question of whether Lester will be able to talk his way out of the situation (probably not). Malvo turns up in Duluth, where he gets pulled over for speeding by a cop (Colin Hanks) who is so intimidated by him that he just lets Malvo go. Scenes from future episodes suggest that he will regret that.
Despite being a little disoriented by it, I liked the episode and plan to watch more. It’s not as good as the movie, but I think the premise could actually work as a long-form story. Although some of the humor and the broad comical accents (Freeman’s in particular needs a lot of work) feel forced, other scenes are downright hilarious.
It’s my understanding that the show was announced as a limited-run series. If it’s successful, it could continue even if some of the bigger names like Thornton and Freeman drop out by bringing in new guest stars and centering the story around the Molly character.
On the spectrum of recent TV shows based on movies, this one isn’t quite on the level of ‘Hannibal’, but it has the potential to at least be on par with ‘Bates Motel’. That’s not a bad place to be.