Episode 1: "The Crocodile's Dilemma"
THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted took place in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
So begins Noah Hawley's television reboot of the Coen brothers' 1996 film Fargo, with nearly the same disclaimer as its predecessor. The new show, which premiered on FX last night, is taking the same approach to television as one of the network's other popular shows. Like American Horror Story, Fargo will be an anthology, meaning that the storyline and the cast will change from season to season -- assuming it passes this initial 10-episode test.
The Coens' Fargo opens on an expanse of white snow, save for a bird flitting around and headlights shining in the distance. Composer Carter Burwell's score gradually builds to a crescendo, and we're left watching a car pull a tan Cutlass Ciera in the tundra.
Hawley takes a different turn down the same kind of road, the nightmarish yang to the the dream-like yin of the Coen's opening. It's pitch black, save for the headlights of a far-off car. A streak of blood-red haze from the taillights illuminate Billy Bob Thornton's eyes, peering on the road, while muffled thudding comes from inside the trunk. With an Anton Chigurh 2.0 haircut, it's easy to see that Thornton's Lorne Malvo is one of those people that makes things go bump in the night.
Malvo hits a deer, careening off the side of the road. The guy in his trunk goes running off, illuminated by the headlights in only a pair of boxers, reminiscent of the scene in the movie when Jerry Lundegaard's wife blindly tries to run away from her captors in the snow as they laugh like she's the punchline of a sick joke.
It's easy to compare the television Fargo to the original -- just as easy as it is to compare the film to the actual town itself. "Do they really talk like that? No one really has that accent anymore, do they?"
There's Lester Nygaard, a sheepish and unhappy insurance salesman -- played by British actor Martin Freeman -- not so unlike William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard, though he's henpecked constantly by his high school sweetheart-turned-wife.
After a run-in with an old high school bully and his dumb-as-rocks sons, Nygaard ends up in the hospital where he gets acquainted Malvo (with a head injury from the deer accident) while attempting to drink some grape Faygo with a busted nose. Malvo takes it from Nygaard and downs it like he's a Juggalo in the desert -- a sign saying "Do not trust this guy" if there ever was one. Nygaard's also got a younger brother who's his polar opposite: the epitome of successful, new-money yuppiedom and faux-masculinity with a penchant for watching Rachel Ray and collecting big guns.
Filling Francis McDormand's Marge Gunderson-sized shoes (which won her an Oscar, don't 'cha know), Allison Tolman takes the female lead in this Fargo. And you know what? She kills it -- metaphorically. While Gunderson was pregnant, happily married, and a skilled police officer to boot, Tolman's Molly Solverson is single, hangs out with her dad (the fantastic-as-always Keith Carradine), and really isn't a great cop... yet. Her character doesn't have the same leadership and know-how as Gunderson, but Tolman holds her own.
There are hit men and plenty of cops, like in the movie, but they've got their own agendas here.
And finally, what every Minnesotan will be listening for when they flip on Fargo: the accents and the sayings. Hawley finds a way to bring "you betcha" and "oh, yahhh" into the script, even throwing an "uffda" in there for good measure. Freeman practices his Minnesotan accent, which fades in and out at times, but he plays his depressing character so fantastically that it doesn't matter. Bob Odenkirk shows up for only a handful of minutes, but his grasp of the lilting accent is thrilling, especially when talking about barfing up some spaghetti after seeing the aftermath of a homicide.
Speaking of homicide... That's what Fargo is all about, isn't it? Put-upon, regular-type folks doing insanely desperate things after they finally snap, right? It happens. And while the first deaths of the episode are somewhat milquetoast in terms of shock-and-awe value, the others lived up to our gory expectations. Believe us, we'll never think of saying "aw, jeez!" the same way again.
There's a poster on the Nygaard's basement wall showing a school of yellow fish swimming while a single red fish goes against the current: "What if you're right and they're wrong?" It serves as a motif as much for the characters as the show itself.
So, is this an homage? Or is it blasphemous to remake this Coen classic for television? It's got the same premise (and trappings) of the original: a white guy from Bemidji who gets mixed up with shady guys, while the women are mostly relegated to being homebodies or Scandinavian hotties. The dialogue is sometimes spot on, and sometimes a little too clever for its own good, but Hawley's grasp of Coen-style black comedy works. What both the film and show excel at is making even the most mundane things and people take on a sinister note -- hell, even the washing machine is "angry." Plus, the Coens are executive producers on the program, so it appears they've given it their blessing.
"You make your own wins," Mrs. Nygaard says to Lester before he goes to work. It's clear that Hawley's trying to win with this, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.
[Editor's note: Don't have cable? Looking to read recaps? Want to discuss the show in the comments? We'll be recapping each episode weekly as it airs. Stay tuned!]