Earlier this week I wrote about the new FX series “Fargo” before it had aired, focusing on the lamentations of my fellow residents of northern Minnesota any time they hear so much as the title of this series or its 1996 Coen Brothers movie predecessor. “They don’t get the ayyyyyyyxcents ryyyyght,” they say. I urged patience, because the movie “Fargo” was good for reasons that had little to do with the exaggerated version of “Minnesota Nice” that everyone remembers. It was, like many Coen Brothers films, about dark forces reaching into innocent places.
The series premiere that aired Thursday night is arguably cut from the same mold. It’s not exactly a remake of the original movie; all the characters are different. It’s not a sequel; the events seem to be happening during the same era as the movie’s events: somewhere between the late ’80s and early 2000s in Minnesota. “Fargo” seems to have borrowed the setting, tone and theme from the movie, and little else. The result is a very entertaining show.
In fact, I would summarize the show this way: “Fargo,” the TV show, is three parts “Fargo,” the movie, and one part “No Country For Old Men,” another Coen brothers classic adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel. You’ve got a quaint northern Minnesota city, a fictional version of Bemidji, with small town concerns and petty rivalries. Then one day, the dark hand of fate arrives in the form of a borderline psychopathic hit man. After that human nature unfolds in tragic, funny, frightening and heartbreaking ways.
A put-upon insurance salesman named Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, of “Hobbit” fame) is having a hard time. His wife (portrayed as one of the worst people in this whole show) thinks he’s a loser. He’s not particularly good at his job. Even worse, his high school bully still bullies him. We are shown a very pathetic man nearing his breaking point.
Lester’s chance encounter with Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a curious, mysterious stranger, in the hospital brings about a chain of events that I’ll avoid summarizing for now. Sufficed to say, four people die in this episode and one gets the sense that the show is just getting warmed up.
So, what you really want to know, how Minnesotan is this thing? Do they get it right?
My answer, and I’ve heard plenty of disagreement from friends and neighbors, is yes … they got it right enough. I’ll list a series of observations and judge them good to bad with the following rating system: Oh, ya!; Pretty good; Could be Worse; Interesting (the worst thing a Minnesotan can say).
The accents are exaggerated, just like in the movie. That’s dramatic license and we should allow it. In a few instances one gets the sense that the dialect coaches told actors to stress certain words, and so there are moments where the Minnesota viewer becomes highly aware of the coaching (Anytime someone says “Minnesota” in this show we can feel the off-screen presence of the coach). The Minnesota accent is most convincing when it’s relaxed. I’m hoping this improves with time. But some of the worst offending characters were murdered in this episode, so we move on with hopeful spirit. Could be Worse.
Lester’s hat is a partridge plaid Stormy Kromer. My hat is a partridge plaid Stormy Kromer. Forgive my bias, but I’m going to call that a direct hit. Oh, ya!
Early in the show, Billy Bob Thornton’s character Malvo hits a deer on the highway. I’d say they more or less got this common occurrence in northern Minnesota about right, though the actual deer hit had me wondering whether they used a whitetail deer or some kind of prairie critter instead. The fake dead deer later was a whitetail, though. Pretty Good.
The characters kept talking about it being “negative 10.” No one says “negative 10” here. They say “ten below” or “minus 10.” Interesting.
This one has little to do with Minnesota, and this show is hardly the only culprit. At one point the sheriff’s very pregnant wife is in bed sleeping on her back. Pregnant ladies don’t do this. If you sleep on your back when you’re pregnant, the full weight of that writhing interloper will be in your vitals and you’ll feel like throwing up. I have not experienced this, of course, but it’s been narrated to me with great vigor a number of times. Interesting.
You have to accept that the Bemidji they show in the program is not the real Bemidji. They don’t even really try that hard, and that’s OK. Books do this all the time. William Kent Krueger’s Aurora, Minnesota, is not like the real Aurora and it’s OK. But the show does recognize that Duluth is too big to fake, and they create an industrial district that looks like the loading docks with the Aerial Lift Bridge in the background. Pretty Good.
Though the actors sometimes don’t seem to know how to behave in the snow (the kid at the motel has no idea how to shovel snow, for instance), it is clear from the landscape shots that this was filmed somewhere cold (Canada) and that can’t be faked. Pretty good.
The way the circumstances piled up on Lester in the show’s first half hour was almost too much. You could feel the writers go well out of their way to make sure we sympathized for this poor sad sack and might even forgive him for the terrible thing he does later. Fortunately, the show’s dramatic tension in the second half was outstanding and well executed and saved the day. Could be Worse.
Excellent performances. Every single thing about Billy Bob Thornton in this show is outstanding, except for his haircut, and even that provides the fly in the ointment to make a truly compelling character. He’s dark and evil, but literate and self-aware. His “There be Dragons Here ” speech to the Duluth cop Gus Grimely (Colin Hanks) during the traffic stop is an Emmy clip and a half. As Nygaard, Freeman provokes the perfect mix of sympathy and scorn. Colin Hanks’ Grimly seems like a character who could take a leading role in future episodes, and his accent is passable. I also liked Allison Tollman as Molly Solverson, the deputy Bemidji chief who shows good cop instincts, small town charm and just the right amount of ambition to give her character an edge. Oh, ya!
Excellent pacing. Slow start, tremendous dramatic payoff. If the show can keep that energy every week it’s going to be must watch for us. Oh, ya!
I’ll try to check in on this show periodically, especially as it relates to northern Minnesota-isms, but for now that’s my view from northern Minnesota. In summary, “Fargo” on FX has some flaws, but its strengths are more than enough to deserve further viewing. Ya, Pretty good. (3 and a half stars/4)