Fargo Miniseries: An Homage to the Coen Brothers

I remember a year or two back and hearing for the first time that FX was planning on turning the Coen Brother’s 1996 classic Fargo into a TV series. Needless to say, I was more than a little concerned. You see, movie-to-TV adaptations don’t have a very good track record. For every Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which I bet you didn’t realize or forgot was based on a movie), there’s a Casablanca or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off TV series that barely lasted half a season. Come to think of it, the best movie-to-TV adaptations are usually animated kids shows (think The Real Ghostbusters or Star Wars: Clone Wars).

But back to Fargo.

I think it’s important to know that I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan. O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowskiare two of my favorite films of all time. Inside Llewyn Davis was my favorite film from last year and True Grit is that rare remake/readaptation that’s actually better the original. So needless to say, I hold their work in high esteem, andFargo is no exception.

It’s an easy movie to write off on the surface, especially if you’re just viewing it for the first time. I’ll admit that it took me a few viewings to realize what makes it truly special. It’s all about small time criminals that don’t know what they’re doing and the dogged (and very pregnant) police officer that’s trying to crack the case. It’s a small town crime story that revels in Minnesota nice accents and dialects. In that regard, it’s kind of mundane. But that’s what’s so great about it. It’s a very recognizable type of crime film.

The characters in Fargo weren’t the cops and robbers we idolized or aspired to be in films like Reservoir Dogs orLethal Weapon, but they were people that we recognize in each other and in ourselves. Small roles seem bigger because they’ve been written and observed so well. That’s what was great about the film when it came out almost twenty years ago and what’s still great about it today. You could walk into your local police station and meet a lot of the character types from this film.

It’s also a very small story, something you could easily read about in the morning paper while you’re drinking coffee or making breakfast.  So when you finish watching Fargo, the last thing you’re thinking is, “I think that story was limited by the constraints of a two hour film. It’d be a much better TV series.” It’s a one and done. The case is wrapped and you get the feeling that for most of the characters in the film, the events will just become a story they remember and tell for years to come.

It’s worth noting that this also wasn’t the first time someone had tried adapting Fargo for the small screen.  Actress Kathy Bates actually directed a pilot for a TV series starring Edie Falco as the pregnant police officer investigating another small town murder back in 2003. It was never picked up for a series.

So you take the fact that film-to-TV adaptations are never that good, then compound that with the fact that we’ve been down this road before, and you understand my trepidation when it came to a Fargo TV series.

But then the information started slowly coming in.

It wasn’t going to be a readapation of the film, or even feature its now iconic characters. It was going to tell its own story, just set in the perpetual snowy universe of Fargo. It also wasn’t going to be an ongoing series. If a first season was successful, the show would create a new case and series of characters for season two (akin to the similar anthology model that True Detective and American Horror Story have adopted). So far so good.

Then reports came in that the Coens were involved as executive producers. To be fair, people have gotten executive producer credits for doing practically nothing, and I assume that was as much the case here. But that report also came with the news that they had read the pilot, approved of it, and even offered some ideas for the rest of the season. Coming from a pair of filmmakers as reclusive and quiet as the Coens, that’s high praise. So at this point I’m cautiously optimistic.

Then the cast started getting put together. Martin Freeman. Colin Hanks. Bob Odenkirk. Joey King. Keith Carradine. Adam Goldberg. Oliver Platt. Key and Peele. To top it all off, the whole thing was being headlined by Coen’s regular Billy Bob Thorton (who had roles in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Intolerable Cruelty). At this point, I’m not just excited. I’m ecstatic. This would be a killer cast for a movie, let alone an entire season of television.

Of course, none of this means anything if the show itself doesn’t turn out to be good, which I’m sure is what you’re dying to know. But let’s be honest, I wouldn’t have dedicated a page and a half of build up if it wasn’t worth writing. In short: like the movie it’s based on, Fargo is not what you expect, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it.

Whereas the film seemed like it was tweaking certain genre expectations and putting a very Coen-esque spin on things, the TV show goes a step further by putting a spin on the Coen brothers. The result is, dare I say, an even more interesting set of characters than the ones that appear in the film. Sure there are echoes of characters that have come before, but they’re given new things to do and pushed to different limits.

Allison Tolman plays a very Marge Gunderson-y type character, except she’s somehow more dogged and persistent to a fault. Her theories and observations, while often right, get her into trouble with her superiors and complaints from suspects who think she’s harassing them. Fargo is very reminiscent of the works of writer Flannery O’Connor, simultaneously very funny and shockingly violent. O’Connor once said that we live in a time that’s grown deaf to the world and to the things of the spirit, so you have to shout in the country of the deaf. So it’s more than appropriate that Tollman’s Molly full embodies that spirit, crying out in a small town that has become complacent and susceptible to terrible things.

Martin Freeman is the seemingly innocent citizen who winds up committing a crime and spending the rest of the series trying to clean up after it, only to find himself deeper and deeper in the hole. But unlike the William H. Macy character in the film, Freeman’s Lester Nygaard finds himself going down a path that’s closer to Walter White than Jerry Lundegaard (sadly, Martin Freeman doesn’t say “I am the danger” in a Minnesota accent).

Then there’s Billy Bob Thorton’s Lorne Malvo, a character that has zero basis in the film but makes all the difference here. Fargo the film was pretty isolated in its cast of characters. Everyone involved was either from the town or the surrounding area. But Malvo is an outsider. He’s like the snake that’s been unleashed in the Garden of Eden, slithering between characters and putting evil thoughts and temptations in their heads. His southern drawl is a nice contrast from the Midwest accent used by the rest of the cast. He also sports the worst haircut this side of Anton Chigurh in the Coen’s No Country For Old Men.

Which brings me to my next point. Fargo is just as connected to the rest of the Coen-verse as it is to the film it’s based on. Sure, there are plenty of callbacks to the film. A certain parking lot, window scrapper, and bag of cash all make special appearances, and by the end of the season someone does get pregnant (hint, it’s not Billy Bob Thorton). The great thing about these references is that you don’t need to have seen the film to know what’s going on, it just adds a deeper level of appreciation. Same goes for the rest of the series’ Coen homages.

The Billy Bob Thorton character is an embodiment of pure evil and mayhem in the same way Anton Chiguhr is in No Country For Old Men, albeit a little more chatty and mischievous. There’s a parable within a parable like in A Serious Man. Old Testament references are liberally spread throughout. There’s even a reference to White Russians, the Dude’s preferred drink of choice in The Big Lebowski. The plot itself manages to balance between Fargo’s small town vibe and No Country’s border crossing crime spree.

Cleverly written, beautifully shot, and finely acted, Fargo has everything you’ve come to expect from this Golden Age of Televsion, while also forging its own identity. As of now, we have no idea if Fargo will come back for a second season. If they do, I’ll be back and watching week to week. But if not, then I can safely say it was a good run.