‘Fargo’ premiere shows promise, leaves room for improvement

Photo by futureatlas.com, via flickr 

Evan Burr/Contributing Writer 

Rarely does a TV series adapted from a successful film fill viewers with a sense of satisfaction. In rare cases, you get something like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Stargate” or “Friday Night Lights,” but more often than not, you get “Highlander: The Series,” which I highly recommend, you forget ever existed.

So when FX announced that they were making a series based on the 1996 Coen Brothers’ black comedy “Fargo” nearly a decade after the film’s release, I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t alone in my skepticism.

One of the reasons the film worked so well was the setting: a small town in Minnesota where things rarely went wrong. In such a setting a singular event, such as a used car salesman hiring a couple of criminals to kidnap his wife in a quick attempt to get some money, works for both comedic and dramatic purposes because it is completely unexpected.

It’s not the kind of setting that would often work in a drawn out or episodic fashion, not to mention the chances of anyone matching the quality you would come to expect from the Coen Brothers is slim.

However, not being one to judge something before giving it a chance, I reserved judgment on the show. As time went on, of course, they began to reveal more information about the series that, to be honest, did a lot to sooth my worries.

The series was being helmed by Noah Hawley, the man behind the criminally underrated series “The Unusuals” starring Jeremy Renner and Amber Tamblyn.

“Fargo” will star a frequent Coen Brothers collaborator, Billy Bob Thornton (“Bad Santa”, “The Man Who Wasn’t There”), and the cast quickly filled with other notable names such as Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit”, “The World’s End”), Colin Hanks (“King Kong”), Bob Odenkirk (“Breaking Bad”), and Adam Goldberg (“The Unusuals”).

All things considered, things were looking up for the series, although it did give the vibe that it would be more like “Twin Peaks” than the film it’s based on.

The series premiered on April 15th at 10 p.m. on FX with an extended hour and a half long episode.

If I had to say only one thing about it, it’s that the show did not disappoint. It had the bleak, dark humor and escalation-style conflicts one might expect from the work of the Coen Brothers, yet Hawley managed to make the series his own.

The score, composed by Jeff Russo, set the tone in a wonderful way, with music comparable in quality (although definitely not style) to the scores of “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones”.

The characters in the two formats have a bit of a cross-over feel to them. Freeman’s Lester Nygaard filled the role of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, Thorton’s Lorne Malvo was a mixture of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s murdering duo, and Shawn Doyle’s Vern Thurman was the show’s answer to Frances McDormand’s Academy Award winning Marge Gunderson.

Yet with all the similarities between the characters, beyond the professions and roles in the story, they were different enough to keep me interested.

The series, for all its humor, has a darker tone than the film, something drawn, for the most part, from the characters, who all seem to have a more innocent quality to them.

Rather than an escalation of mishaps and murders set in motion by the actions of a scumbag and the murderers he hired, we get calamity and destruction brought about by what I considered to be the true standout of the show: Lorne Malvo, played brilliantly by Billy Bob Thornton.

The character was less a criminal and more a force of nature, a ball of chaos with a bad haircut, rolling into town to sow the seeds of malcontent and violence to everyone he meets for no more reason than a cat has to bat around a paper ball. He seems like a bored man who can only interest himself by releasing the inner darkness of those around him.

In what had to have been my favorite scene, he goes to a motel for the night and begins to argue with the owner about having to pay extra for a pet because, as he pointed out, what constitutes a pet? A cat, dog, or fish? Maybe even bacteria.

Of course, none of this mattered in the end, as Malvo had no pet with him, he just wanted to challenge the motel’s rules.

That is not to say that everything in the show was good. It definitely had its faults, as every piece of entertainment does.

A few characters left me less than impressed, namely Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson and the entirety of the Hess family. While it seems unlikely that the Hess’ are going to be a large part of the show, Solverson seems like she’s not going away anytime soon.

With hope, she gets better; it wouldn’t be the first time a character that played poorly in the beginning of a series became a fan favorite.

Another issue, which could just be my inner desire to compare film and show to each other, is the fact that the town does not have the same personality that it did in the film.

In the film, the town of Fargo feels almost like a character in the series; in the show, the town (It’s not Fargo, but somewhere in Minnesota) is more of a backdrop, existing only so they can call the show “Fargo”.

Rarely is this a problem in a show, but the name of the series does give the implication that the location matters. Probably the biggest problem the show may face is staying power.

While a strong opening, it leaves me wondering if the series will be able to keep the story going for a full 10 episodes. If they can manage that, they’re in the clear, as the series is meant to be an anthology series, similar to “American Horror Story”, which changes the plot every season, but the episode ended without really saying what the story would be from here on.

It came across as if most of the problems were wrapped up fairly neat, with only a few problems for the characters to face, enough for one or two more episodes.

All things considered, the series has more going for it than against it, and it’s very possible that any negative aspects I found in this episode will be corrected in the next.

I know that I’ll be tuning in every week for sure, and it seems like just the kind of series I would recommend to any fan of television or film, comedy or drama. It’s got enough of everything to satisfy just about anyone, although I would suggest seeing the film first to see if it fits with your kind of style.

life@fiusm.com 

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