Plot: When a drifter named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) rolls into the town of Bemidji, Minnesota, he leaves behind a path littered with blood. Left in his wake is a lowly insurance salesman named Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) who slowly becomes a ruthless monster. An aspiring Deputy in the Bemidji police force named Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and a Duluth police officer named Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) come together to fix a region in chaos.
Fargo is quite an anomaly. Despite bearing the same name as the 1996 Academy Award nominated hit, this TV series is neither a sequel or remake. It’s an original story with an entirely different cast that really doesn’t require any knowledge of the film to enjoy. In fact, the only story similarities are the Minnesota setting, the occasional nod to things only film viewers can possibly know, and their shared title. A Fargo TV show in itself caused some confusion for fans, specifically on why it’s even happening. It has been 18 years since the film came out after all. This alone makes the show a completely unnecessary creation that no one asked for or wanted.
Yet now that the show is done with Season 1, I see that Fargo is more than an anomaly in concept. It’s also an anomaly in quality. Even though this whole idea is one that really shouldn’t have worked, especially tied to a culturally significant film, this season was spectacular. There is no one single thing that made this possible too. Fargo is a combination of stellar acting, beautifully directed shots, and an excellently written story. The show is so reminiscent in style to the movie it’s based on, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the Coen Brothers are Executive Producers. All of this combines to make Fargo one of this year’s top new shows.
First and foremost, lets clear the air concerning the show vs. movie situation. Very little about the movie directly impacts events, which is great because it allows this program to exist on its own. Yet there are enough Easter Eggs peppered in to prove that both definitely exist within the same world. The biggest connector of all came with “Eating the Blame” when a debt filled Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) finds a briefcase hidden in snow after praying for help in 1987. How that briefcase got there is never explained, likely chalked up to divine intervention, but movie fans know that’s the very same briefcase Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buried before his death. What really makes this connection work is that its not important to know how the briefcase got there. The same can be said about the disclaimer “This is a true story.” Fargo the movie claimed this too and everyone knows that story is fictional. Fargo the TV show is fictional too, but that fact is as pointless as knowing how a briefcase filled with money gets buried. They’re connectors between two mediums and nothing more.
What is important is the story and each character’s role. The undisputed star is Lorne Malvo, played unbelievably well by Billy Bob Thornton. Dealing with the chaos he creates is literally the main story. Over the course of one day, Malvo completely changed Lester’s entire worldview by ruthlessly eliminating bully Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady). Even though Malvo spends most of his show time blackmailing Stavros with Don Chumph (Glenn Howerton), his single Bemidji visit ripples throughout. Lester, already a suspect, is terrorized by Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg) and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) who want revenge for Hess. Both Molly and Gus work tirelessly to stop the real threat, but they are each saddled by personal issues. Gus has his daughter Greta (Joey King) to care for and Molly is constantly undermined by Police Chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) for both being a woman and not willing to let things go. In hindsight, there was a lot of interconnected stories over such a short time, but the show never felt cluttered.
The acting was top notch too. Thornton was easily the big showstopper, expertly showing the many shades of Malvo with surprising ease. When necessary, Malvo can be the most intimidating person in the world. His extended dialogues are so unsettling it’s practically shocking when someone doesn’t die after. Yet in the blink of an eye, Malvo can completely change himself into someone different like a chameleon. He successfully dupes the police into believing he’s a friendly pastor and we first seem him after the one year time jump in “A Fox, a Rabbit, and a Cabbage” as a wildly successful dentist. It really was a performance that definitely won’t go unnoticed during awards season.
Thornton is only the tip of the iceberg too. Freeman absolutely nails Lester’s slow descent into madness. You want to feel bad for the man, but it’s clear that everything he did was entirely on his own accord. It even gets to the point where you legitimately despise Lester with “Who Shaves The Barber” as his definitive worst. The previously theater focused Tolman was a golden find too. Fargo is only her third television spot and yet she perfectly fits a role that is highly reminiscent of Frances McDormand’s Oscar winning performance. Don’t get me wrong, she’s no Marge Gunderson, but Molly Solverson comes damn close. Hanks and Odenkirk are excellent as two men who simply want to do well but are just too unprepared. Gus isn’t cut out to be a cop but he does what he needs to provide for a young daughter. Bill however is a fine cop when he’s focused more on keeping streets plowed during a heavy snowstorm. You know, typical small town Minnesota stuff. A multiple homicide is way too much for him, and you can easily make the case that he wants Molly to stop her investigation mainly because he wants the hassle to go away. And then you have Keegan Michael-Key, Jordan Peele, Kate Walsh, Keith Carradine, Platt, Howerton, Goldberg, and Harvard. Talk about packed!
Even though this first season was amazing, it wasn’t without its negatives. It’s biggest flaw is that some dialogue is almost as plodding as walking through deep Minnesota snow. For example, it just got frustrating having Bill repeatedly shoot down Molly’s perfectly reasonable ideas. I get that’s basically the backbone of his whole character, but after a time it felt like beating a dead horse. There were some scene’s that clearly existed to fill up time too, like Malvo meeting Lou (Keith Carradine), Malvo meeting Gus’s neighbor, and Gus’s neighbor’s wife undressing for him through the window. These are just a few moments that, in the end, were entirely unnecessary. It almost felt like the show was getting too self-indulgent for its own good.
It’s currently unknown if Fargo will get a second season, though many people are pegging this as a new anthology series like True Detective. I personally am all for another adventure. Whatever small fears I had going in (I was easily more excited than many) were completely washed away fairly early. This was a really great season and I absolutely cannot wait to see what comes next. Hopefully there will be more “Oh yah” along for the ride.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.