This article contains mild spoilers for ‘The Crocodile’s Dilemma’.
The TV adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ classic movie Fargo has arrived at our screens, opening with a variation of the same lie that opened the film: ‘This is based on a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006’. This leaves us with an immediate question. Will the series live up to the movie? The answer seems to be a resounding and unequivocal yes. While it may not quite reach the heights of the original, often referred to as the Coens’ masterpiece, it carries the tone over in a form fit for television, and establishes its own kind of originality. Created in the wake of other recent dramas that have been adapted from iconic movies – Hannibal and Bates Motel spring to mind – Fargo sensibly follows suit by not making the mistake of adhering too closely to the source material.
The U.S. series stars Billy Bob Thornton and our own Martin Freeman, two actors who bounce off each other brilliantly and promise great chemistry throughout the series. Both constantly engage and amuse as we see relentless drifter Lorne Malvo (Thornton) influence Lester Nygaard (Freeman), a middle-aged loser in the vein of Walter White from early episodes of Breaking Bad. We join Lester as he encounters the high school bully from his past, Sam Hess, a meeting of man versus mouse that lands Lester in hospital. Here he meets his polar opposite Malvo, a man who lives by no rules, and takes it upon himself to educate Lester in his philosophy. What unfolds is an intriguing exploration into what it means to be masculine, something that is simplified to its bare components by Malvo – ‘Your problem is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t. We used to be gorillas’.
Creator and writer Noah Hawley – known best for being a writer on Bones – successfully makes the viewer sympathise with Lester throughout most of the episode. We see Nygaard on his daily routine at a job going nowhere, to his life at home with annoying and over-critical wife Pearl. Previous comparisons made to Walter White soon end by the final minutes of the episode however. While we were trepidatiously rooting for Walt’s change of character at the end of the Breaking Bad pilot, the actions that Lester carries out during the final events of ‘The Crocodile’s Dilemma’ are so extreme, that the viewer’s sympathy runs out, and we have no idea what to think. This twist in circumstances proves for a far more eventful first episode than we would expect, and sets this drama apart from any of the other new series that have started this year (with the exception of maybe True Detective).
As we witness Lester’s descent into a darker place morally, all awhile we see Malvo indulge himself in his already pitch-black morals. After mysteriously entering Bemidji, Thornton proves a magnetic on-screen presence as we see Malvo manipulate the people around him, seemingly for his own amusement. This leads to a fantastic yet tense exchange between Malvo and Deputy Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), one of the best scenes of the episode. However, with this focus on male characters I was worried throughout most of the hour that we wouldn’t see a strong enough female figure to counteract all the macho bravado. Thankfully my worries were addressed, as a turn in events sets up Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) as the one who will be investigating what has been occurring around the town since Malvo appeared.
Martin Freeman’s accent may seem shaky to some, and all out crap to others, but he actually employs a pretty accurate version of the ‘Minnesota nice’ accent featured in the original movie. While the show doesn’t rely so heavily on that accent’s presence, what it does share with the film is its mixture of tones. The Coen Brothers got the balance of dark humour and drama pretty pitch perfect, and here Hawley has come close to reaching that high calibre of writing. There’s a great moment showcasing this when Hess’ wife (Kate Walsh) is being interviewed by the police, where she casually adjusts her cleavage while the elder of her two sons mercilessly beats the younger son out of jealousy in the background.
It’s safe to say that Hawley has created a show that will carry on to expand on the dark and comedic world that the Coens touched upon in a triumphant fashion, eighteen years after the original was released. Beautifully shot – Lester wearing his bright orange parka stands out over a snow-white Minnesota backdrop – and well-acted, the next nine episodes should prove to be great television, as mysteries surrounding Malvo are unraveled, and the characters of Lester and Molly are further explored.
9/10 – A great and eventful first episode, setting up even more to come in a promising new series. Worthy of the name Fargo.
Fargo is broadcast on Channel 4 on Sunday nights at 9.00pm.