[This is a review for Fargo episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Noah Hawley's adaptation of the Coen brothers' 1996 Academy Award-winning Fargo begins with similar text laid over a long familiar expanse of frozen landscape, declaring the events you are about to witness are based on a "true story," and that only the names have been changed "at the request of the survivors."
It works as both a polite nod to the original and an indication that things have been changed, as Hawley ushers in a batch of similar but different characters, plopping them into roughly the same milieu, while letting them swirl around somewhat familiar circumstances. Mostly, though, the 90-minute premiere spends its time dabbling in many of the same themes.
Elements of estrangement and unfulfilled ambition are again filtered through a darkly comic, cynical lens that takes great pleasure in underlining certain characters' sense of powerlessness and inadequacy, while also throwing in a hefty dose of amusing, borderline slapstick coincidence.
This combination opens the door for an exploration of how those factors – especially the overpowering sense of subjection – lead characters like Martin Freeman's hapless, put-upon Minnesota insurance salesman, Lester Nygaard, to discover a heretofore unknown, or at least suppressed, dark side that (with a little prodding) essentially allows chaos to come crashing right through the proverbial floodgates.
Early on, much of the chaos comes in the form of Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo, a bearded assassin for a crime syndicate who so wholly conforms to the archetypal plot device of "a stranger comes to town" he is literally introduced driving on the road outside a fictionalized version of Bemidji, MN. After striking a deer on the icy highway, Malvo's car skids off the road and the nearly naked man being held in the trunk scampers away barefoot across a frozen field, disappearing into the night, only to be discovered later by Sheriff Thurman (Shawn Doyle) and Deputy Solverson (Allison Tolman).
Malvo's scene tells the audience pretty much everything they need to know about him without saying anything at all: he's clearly dangerous and knows when a situation has gotten far enough out of hand that it's simply time to move on.
Moving on leads Malvo to the waiting area of the Bemidji emergency room where he makes the acquaintance of an inconvenienced Lester who recently broke his nose. After creepily sidling up and taking advantage of this stranger's adherence to the show's augmented brand of "Minnesota nice," Malvo immediately begins parsing the circumstances that led to his new friend's injury. In a fumbling account of recent events, Lester attempts to disseminate the decades of torment he's endured at the hands of former high school bully and current local trucking mogul (and peripheral bad guy) Sam Hess.
The scene is depicted as little more than a dreamlike wish fulfillment on Lester's behalf, gradually drawing Malvo more as a malevolent trickster through whom the plot is ushered forth. There's definitely a sense of heightened reality in the characters' initial encounter; it's the same exaggerated depiction that is seen when Lester is forced to endure indignity after indignity at the expense of his wife Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar), as well as his unfortunate meeting with Hess and his two knuckle-dragging kids.
The insidious pride Hess takes recounting the many ways in which he's humiliated Lester over the years – including a not-so-chaste encounter with Lester's wife from before they were married – is so deliberately underlined, so intentionally, gleefully pernicious that it serves to color the otherwise cold, pallid world of Fargo a very specific shade of cynical.
But it also helps to draw a distinction between the various levels of malice being depicted and their motivations. After a Faustian agreement with Malvo results in the death of his nemesis Hess, Lester's id seemingly takes over, turning verbally abusive encounters with his brother Chaz (Joshua Close) and his wife into violent ones – the latter ending with Pearl dead by his hand.
While the actions of Freeman's character are repugnant and unforgivable, they and the motivations behind them are just another illustration of how the series aims to turn everything up to eleven. Every extreme action has its own extreme reaction, which is mirrored in the exaggerated characterizations as well. Here, Hess appears as a one-dimensional meathead bully who takes immense pleasure in preying on those weaker than him, while Malvo derives his satisfaction from pushing others into the kind of lawless endeavors that will inevitably alter and likely set fire to their lives.
Meanwhile, because Lester is seen at the nadir of his personal and professional life, his transformation from punching bag to puncher (or bludgeoner, in this case) is seen as an unpitiable act undertaken by an archetypal character who would normally have the audience's sympathy.
In doing this, Hawley's take on the material again establishes an interest in overstating the kinds of actions and characterizations that were seen in the film. Here, rather than being the selfish catalyst for his wife's death (as Jerry Lundegaard was), Lester commits the act outright, and the character's conflict shifts from an inability to create change to making a series of increasingly harmful choices that will help him avoid taking responsibility for it.
While Lester and Malvo receive the most substantial arcs of the premiere, Fargo teases what will be bigger things to come with Deputy Molly Solverson. Like Lester, Molly is a substitute of sorts for another prominent character from the film – i.e., Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson – and, also like Lester, Molly undergoes rapid and significant change over the course of the first episode. Following the death of Vern, Molly finds herself something of a lone optimist awash in a sea of mostly misanthropic male characters. But here, too, the episode heaps on more of its sense of amplification by placing her in such a heightened situation.
Although it seems initially that 'The Crocodile's Dilemma' could have focused a bit more time on Molly transitioning from deputy to likely the next sheriff following the untimely death of her boss Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle), the episode nicely sets the audience up with the suggestion that her narrative will gather more momentum now that Lester and Malvo have set everything up.
As the series moves on and continues to define itself through such pronounced escalation, the question becomes: Does this augmentation serve to enhance the material or is it a detriment to it? In other words, is this simply Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo redux, or does Hawley have something interesting and different to say? If you stick with it, the answer may be that the series will prove to itself something more than a mere throwback to the film from which it derives its name.
Fargo continues next Tuesday with 'The Rooster Prince' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Chris Large/FX