Does The Fargo TV Series Measure Up To The Film?

Aw jeez, big shoes to fill, ya know?

When it was announced that FX were adapting Fargo into a TV series, it was hard to hold back the scepticism — after all, the movie is a Coen brothers classic. Messing with anything in their oeuvre is akin to sacrilege, but Fargo? You’re risking a whole lotta hate with that one. So it might surprise you to learn that the show doesn’t actually suck — in fact, though the Coens are attached in name only, it manages to render their distinctive style so faithfully that you would think they were penning every episode themselves.

Just in case you haven’t experienced the cinematic excellence that is Fargo, the film follows a small town car salesman (William H. Macy) after he hires two inept criminals to fake-kidnap his wife. Its odd blend of folksy charm and brutal violence won the Coens the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1996, and the notoriously hard-to-please Roger Ebert considered it one of his favourite movies.

Rather than attempt to recreate this scenario, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a ten-episode series, the show establishes a whole new cast of characters and relocates them to Bemidji, Minnesota, in 2006. This time, we follow a meek insurance salesman called Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) who is undervalued by everyone around him — his wife, his brother and his co-workers. After a chance encounter with a drifter (Billy Bob Thornton), he’s involved in a series of murders, which leaves local police trying to figure out what the gosh heck is happening.

Series creator Noah Hawley conceived the show and wrote the first script before even speaking to the Coens, which sounds like a fast-track to career suicide. He’s pulled it off, though — give it time, and it might just fill the gaping void that Breaking Bad left in your life.

Here are the main reasons you should be watching:

The Characters Aren’t Stereotypes

The show’s main characters are inspired by those in the film, but they have their own unique traits. While Lester is just as pitiful as William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, there’s a hatred that boils under the surface of his character that’s entirely his own. Meanwhile, Thornton’s mysterious Lorne Marvo is a smarter, edgier amalgamation of the kidnappers in the film.

If you’re keeping an eye out for anyone, though, make it Deputy Molly Solverson, played by newcomer Alison Tolman. Like her movie counterpart Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), she’s the tirelessly cheerful moral centre of the show. Unlike Marge, she isn’t the Chief of Police, but an overlooked young cop. While at first you might wonder why she’s been sidelined like this, it quickly becomes clear that she’s being isolated by her male colleagues because she’s the only competent person on the case. In a cable landscape dominated by moody blokes with a penchant for philosophising and self-medicating, her personality is a refreshing change.

The Guest Cast Hails From Every Well-Loved Show On TV

To the seasoned TV viewer, every episode of Fargo is a rousing game of ‘spot the actor’. You’ve got Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in a scene-stealing role as a personal trainer; Bob Odenkirk as a clumsy cop who just can’t stomach murder scenes; and Kate Walsh (clearly loving life away from Shonda Rhimes) as a stripper turned bored housewife. The best addition is Adam Goldberg (better known as Crazy Eddie from Friends), who makes an appearance as a fact-finding henchman from Fargo. Remember Crazy Eddie? He’s still crazy.

The Over-The-Top Accents Are Back

If Fargo had one enduring legacy, it was the introduction of the ‘Minnesota nice’ accent into the public consciousness. After the Coens were criticised for making locals sound more Maude Flanders than authentic Minnesotan, the television series decided to downplay the accents, leaving the more exaggerated inflections to characters with bit parts. That said, there are more than enough ‘aw geezes’ and ‘yah you betchas’ to capture the essence of the movie.

It’s Not Afraid To Go Dark

Remember when Steve Buscemi’s character Carl was fed into a woodchipper, and how it’s basically the greatest death scene in cinema history? (True story: that woodchipper is a tourist attraction in actual Fargo.) Well, the series revels in the same absurd carnage. In one episode, the two Fargo henchmen use sign language to communicate with one another while their victim looks on, more bemused than terrified. Later, they use an ice drill to drop him headfirst into a lake. In another episode, an implacable Marvo drags a man tie-first out of his cubicle while his colleagues look on, saying nothing. The humour is twisted, ludicrous, and nothing if not Coen-esque.

It Ties In With The Movie

In his initial interviews, Hawley emphasised that the series was in no way related to the movie — so it was a surprise when a recent episode featured a flashback to 1987, and one of the characters, stranded on an icy highway, spotted something red sticking out of the snow. That something red turned out to be the ice-scraper that Carl used to bury the suitcase full of ransom money in the original movie.

It’s so subtle that casual fans wouldn’t even notice the reference, but that’s the joy of it. It’s a nice nod to an iconic scene, and it confirms that the movie and the show are occurring in the same universe.

It’s An Anthology-Style Series

Fargo is not a premise that could be sustained over the long term. There’s only so much small town incompetence we can take before our ability to suspend disbelief is exhausted. So it’s a relief to know that, like American Horror Story and True Detective before it, Fargo is an anthology series, meaning it will be back for another season, but with a whole new cast, characters and setting. Not only does this keep the action fresh and fast-paced, but it also guarantees that the plot will have a clear-cut resolution — we won’t be waiting until season five for any of the characters to get their comeuppance, and we won’t have to worry about an abrupt mid-storyline cancellation. It remains to be seen whether this format can maintain Fargo’s vitality, but at the very least it will be fun to see which desolate American backwater they decide to take us to next.

Fargo airs Thursdays at 8:30pm on SBS One

Emily Tatti is a Melbourne based writer and the editor of Ricochet Magazine. Her work has appeared in places like Killings, Lip Magazine and Offset, and she annoys her friends with obscure pop culture tweets @narrativekind.