When FX announced that they were making Fargo into a new television series, many fans of the 1996 Coen brothers’ film were infuriated. It was a risky undertaking by writer Noah Hawley, who fully embraced the task of bringing Fargo to the small screen with not even a hint of hesitation. The television series wouldn’t be a remake, it would be a direct sequel set in the same Coen brothers’ universe with the same dark comedy; inspired by the film rather than a rehash of it. It could so easily have gone horribly wrong.
Picked up in the UK by Channel 4 and given the Sunday night slot, Fargo’s premiere episode was a confident one, promising a 10-episode series that would be clever, darkly comedic and pleasantly unsettling. After four episodes, any doubts that viewers had were well and truly squashed. This is not the Coen brothers’ Fargo, this is Noah Hawley’s Fargo and, whilst they evidently share the same source material, both are excellent in their own right. Combine Hawley’s unpredictable story with zany characters and a surprisingly brilliant cast, and Fargo is probably the best new series on TV at present.
Whilst Martin Freeman’s pitiable insurance salesman, Lester Nygaard, is the series’ driving force, the secret weapon is Billy Bob Thornton’s mayhem-creating Lorne Malvo – who arrives in small-town Minnesota with a rather shady agenda. Lorne is a sly and violent drifter, a master of manipulation and a man who knows how to get things done. It’s a part that was made for Billy Bob. With his skinny appearance and reassuring voice, Lorne has the ability to seem utterly harmless. Yet behind the façade of innocence is a cold-blooded killer. Thornton’s brilliance is truly revealed in episode 4 where he seamlessly switches personality and becomes simple and unassuming Frank Peterson, his Lutheran minister alter ego. It’s a stroke of creepy genius.
Thornton is undoubtedly given all the best lines and he’s mastered the art of deadpan delivery. When not uttering threats in the same way one might order a sandwich at a café, Thornton plays his part with an air of amusement – as if the people of Bemidji are mere toys to play with. A lot of Fargo’s appeal is its dark humour and thankfully it isn’t reserved solely for the character of Lorne. Recurring additions Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard, who play Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, know a thing or two about odd humour. Their sign language conversations and meaningful looks are matched only by their imaginative ways of murdering people.
So aside from the cast, why should you be watching Fargo? Well, it’s a series that enjoys throwing surprises at its unsuspecting viewers; Lester’s ferocious outburst in the first episode is certainly shock-worthy television. Not at all what you might initially expect from a man who’s spent his entire life being a push-over, though you can understand his pent up anger. It’s also an expertly produced show, with clever camera work – particularly the episodes directed by Randall Einhorn – an offbeat soundtrack, and an icy location that you can almost feel through the TV.
At its heart, Fargo is a series about morality and the decisions people make. Through it’s unconventional group of characters it explores the idea of what’s right and wrong, and there’s a a peculiar sense of justice that resides. If you’re a ‘bad’ person, chances are you’re going to get what’s coming to you. Sadly, if you’re a good person, you’re just as likely to end up at the bottom of a lake or in the boot of a hit man’s car. That’s Fargo for you.
Catch up on what’s happened in Fargo so far on 4OD or watch the next episode on Sunday at 9pm on Channel 4.