Set as a ten episode limited series, Fargo opens in Bemidji, Minnesota, with a car accident involving the mysterious Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and a man in his underwear trapped in the boot, who later freezes to death attempting to run away whilst Lorne wanders into town. The Bemidji police begin to investigate with Chief Thurman (Shawn Doyle) and Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tollman) taking the lead. Meanwhile, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is dealing with his nagging wife Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar) and the school bully, Sam Hess (Kevin O'Grady) returning to punch him in the face. However, a chance meeting with Lorne in the hospital waiting room sets off a chain of events which Lester had only begun to fantasise about.
The Coen Brothers' 1996 film Fargo is widely regarded as one of their masterpieces, a dark blend of murder, Minnesota and Marge Gunderson, Frances McDormand's heavily pregnant heroine. When a TV series based on the film was announced, it was met with equal parts quiet optimism and cynicism. Part of an ongoing trend of seeing films adapted into television series, of which Bates' Motel and Hannibal are the most popular examples, it was easy to dismiss Fargo as merely riding the wave and using the name of a beloved property to draw in viewers. Thankfully, however, the first episode manages to allay some of those fears with a deliciously dark opening episode.
There are still plenty of ties to the Coen Brothers' original film, but Noah Hawley's screenplay uses it as more of a framework to reference and gain ideas from. Like the film, the action doesn't actually take place in Fargo; it operates as a sort of dark place on the horizon where bad people come from. Similar plot points are in play (the sadsack insurance salesman getting in with criminals, a car crash to investigate etc.) as well as characters clearly using their cinematic counterparts for inspiration, but neither feel ripped off or stolen from the film, but rather operate as homages. There's even a Big Lebowski nod in there for the eagle-eyed Coens fan.
The real strength in Hawley's screenplay lies in his ability to capture the tone of the film and the Coen Brothers' ear for whipsmart dialogue. The Bemidji police offer up a lot of laughs, particularly Bill Odenkirk's squeamish Deputy Oswalt, a man who can't face a crime scene for fear of losing his wife's spaghetti dinner. Then there is Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne, a disarmingly calm man with a penchant for knowing the rules of the motel before paying for a room there (his conversation with the concierge is a highlight). He acts as a sort of evil Puck figure, manipulating situations and people for his own ends, taking it upon himself to help Lester out with his Sam Hess problem and messing around with the family for fun.
However, Lorne also functions as the episode's line between black humour and outright malevolence. Thornton's calm performance is immediately sinister and his reactions to things around him are wonderfully deadpan. It's a scene towards the end of the episode in which this is showcased brilliantly; it's a face off between Lorne and Duluth police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) that is a masterclass in tension-building because it is impossible to interpret the scene's direction. With Lorne around, the tone shifts from outright comedy to suspense quickly and dangerously, offering an unpredictability that never quite lets the audience settle.
The casting of Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard also proves to be a masterstroke. The bewildered expression has been so perfected by Freeman across his career that he really ought to trademark it, but here it is replaced with one of despair. Utterly downtrodden by his life and family, Lester is the kind of man you root for in these situations, willing him to stand up and take action against those who would demean him. Which, of course, Lester does, but not quite in the way you want him to. The moment he takes a hammer to his wife's head (in such a cheery, slapstick fashion) is the big shock of the episode, another point at which you go from laughter to shock to nervous laughter so fast it makes your head spin like the Nygaard's washing machine.
With a body count that's already alarmingly high, Fargo has set the tone for its upcoming instalments quickly and effectively.. It's a dark, bizarre delight that also happens to be riotously funny and I can't wait to see where Hawley takes it next.
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