FX’s Fargo often suggests an alternate world that exists parallel, or perhaps perpendicular, to the dimensions of the Joel and Ethan Coen film on which it’s based. Characters boasting striking but inexact similarities to the movie’s denizens come and go, while motifs such as the buried suitcase of payoff money, marked in a field of endless snow with handy ice-scraper, resurface in unexpectedly altered contexts. Jeff Russo’s music evokes a lower-key reprise of Carter Burwell’s powerfully melancholic score from the film. The photography represents a fusion of Roger Deakins’s memorably claustrophobic snow-globe images with the now-standard grammar of the respectable and well-produced prestige cable series, which is rich in lustrous colors and generic over-the-shoulder blocking so as not to distract from the dialogue and plotting.
This Fargo often appears to be conceived specifically to fuel the fire of film critics who disdain the recent glut of increasingly acclaimed plot-heavy television shows that serve, in their view, to further dilute an audience’s abilities to discern the expressive powers of theoretically visual mediums, as it obviously encourages a direct compare and contrast between film and TV. The series undoubtedly represents a major formal downturn from the film, but it also revels in one of the chief attributes of the format: its ability to emphasize quotidian routine. Plot, for better and worse, is the primary fashion with which most audiences discern meaning from TV, books, and films, as they connect plot to the redundant trivialities that come to define most lives. Fargo represents a considerable aesthetic dilution of its source material, but it also allows us to drink in the setting.
The series has more room to elaborate on the emasculation that drives its dense and inventive plot. Credits inform us, in the same put-on manner as the film’s opening qualifiers, that the story is exactly true save for the names, which have been altered to respect the living. The year is 2006, the setting a variety of hopelessly wintery Minnesota burgs with criminal roots that extend to the North Dakota city of the title. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a henpecked insurance salesman, obviously meant to recall William H. Macy’s car salesman, who inadvertently sets off a murder spree when he runs into a hired killer, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), and passive-aggressively suggests that he wouldn’t mind if a local asshole with a lifelong history of bullying him was to bite the big one. Lorne, who’s willing to knock a few people off pro bono for his own amusement, quickly obliges, pulling several local branches of law enforcement as well as members of the Fargo underworld into an elaborate shell game.
Lorne represents Fargo’s largest departure from its source material. He’s a prototypically smug Thornton villain with a contemptuous, anarchistic intelligence that alludes to other characters from the Coens’ filmography, most explicitly Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men. Like Chigurh, Lorne’s a lone samurai given to spouting self-righteous ramblings that assert the world’s dog-eat-dog hopelessness. To insist the validity of his philosophy, Lorne not only kills people with supernatural impunity, but also stages elaborate practical jokes that are oddly more disturbing than the murder scenes. Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) hires Lorne to suss out the blackmailer threatening to undermine his big-deal grocery store chain, and the latter finds the culprit only to team up with him to net a much larger payday from Stavros.
Fargo commands one’s attention in the tradition of a pretty good yet ultimately impersonal beach read, but it offers an unqualified triumph in its reworking of Marge Gunderson, the character Frances McDormand played in the film. Like Marge, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is a small-town police officer who’s forced to navigate a swamp of entitled male idiocy so as to halt an obvious criminal conspiracy, and Tolman invests the character with a naked sense of yearning and loneliness that’s authentically surprising in the context of a series that so often relies on well-known actors playing to comfortably established type. She raises Fargo’s stakes, reminding you of the human cost of the convoluted game-playing that’s indulged by good and bad guy alike.