Finding Minnesota in ‘Fargo’

The chance meeting between Lester (Martin Freeman) and Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) during the first episode unloads a chain reaction of evil, fear and courage through the 10-episode run of "Fargo" on FX.

The chance meeting between Lester (Martin Freeman) and Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) during the first episode kicks off a chain reaction of evil, fear, goodness and courage through the 10-episode run of “Fargo” on FX.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

When Joel and Ethan Coen’s film “Fargo” came out in 1996 I used my brand-new drivers license to trek from the Iron Range to Duluth to see opening night. Everyone was hopped up over the fact that a pretty big movie was set right here in northern Minnesota. But the excitement quickly turned.

“Aw, jeez. We don’t talk like that, you know.”

“Ya. That’s no good.”

I didn’t quite get the anti-“Fargo” vitriol showed by some back then. The movie blew my mind, duck stamps, night crawlers, wood chipper and all. The accents and exaggerated version of the cultural myth of “Minnesota Nice” were just devices the Coens’ used to deliver the theme: darkness enters even innocent places, causing the good to rise to the occasion and the evil to sink below.

I saw “Fargo” in the theater at least twice, and quickly bought the VHS tape when it came out. There was a girl I really liked and I got just one chance to hang out with her at her house to watch a movie. I brought “Fargo.” It made her very uncomfortable. And so it goes. But I’d always have “Fargo,” even if it drives half my home state nuts over the “inayyyyycurate ayyyyyycents.” We don’t really talk like that, don’cha know! So far as we can tell, anyway. (Pssst. We do.)

But whether you were a fan of the original movie or a skeptic, there was reason to be nervous when the FX Network announced last year it would film a 10-episode TV series based on “Fargo.” The show would be cast with known actors like Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Colin Hanks, Kate Walsh, and a lesser-known lead actress in Allison Tolman, along with a talented blend of other familiar and unfamiliar faces.

Just like 18 years ago when the film came out, the debut of the “Fargo” series earlier this year, now set in Bemidji instead of Brainerd, attracted great speculation about how well the Hollywood production team would represent Minnesota. Because there is no place quite as sensitive to such things as Minnesota. The place was willing to perpetuate a mythical feud with Bob Dylan for several decades because he pretended to be from New Mexico, and the globetrotting Garrison Keillor knows he too walks a fine line. Part of the reason more shows and movies aren’t set here is because producers should rightly be concerned for the resulting local emotional fallout.

In expectation of this phenomenon, I decided to review all 10 episodes of “Fargo”on my blog. Initially I had intended to review them for their Minnesota geographical and cultural accuracy. I even used a Minnesota ratings scale: “Oh, ya!” was the best, followed by “Pretty Good,” “Could be Worse,” and worst of all, the local mark of shame: “Interesting.” However, as the show took its sharp turns and suspenseful starts and stops I began to review not just the continuity, but the content.

Molly Solverson (Allison Tollman) is hot on the trail of the truth in the unfolding capers of "Fargo" on FX.

Molly Solverson (Allison Tollman) is hot on the trail of the truth in the unfolding capers of “Fargo” on FX.

You know what? “Fargo,” the FX series, was one of the best TV shows I’ve seen in a long time, certainly my favorite this year. And sure, there were examples of exaggerations of Minnesota culture. But that’s all part of series writer and producer Noah Hawley calling up the best attributes of the movie. “Fargo,” the show, was about the introduction of a truly evil, seemingly random force into a mostly innocent community.

Thornton’s Lorne Malvo character was essentially like the lone killer from another Coen Brothers movie and Cormac McCarthy book, “No Country for Old Men.” He is not just a “really bad guy,” he’s a philosophical force that brings out the worst in everyone he encounters — except for the truly good people. They remain outside his influence, to his great frustration. We got a marvelous performance from Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson, the Bemidji deputy who hunts the ruthless killer. And things don’t turn out just as you expect; but they all seem to happen for a reason, or as part of an unfolding plan we humans don’t control.

So if you missed it, you missed it. But don’t let old prejudices about “Fargo” keep you from checking out this series on your home screens later. The message in this show is that the virtue of our better selves can win out against our darker impulses, no matter how heartbreaking, bizarre or dark that battle may become.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, June 29, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

UPDATE: Catch the complete set of my reviews of “Fargo” at my “Fargo” archive page. As you catch up on DVD or digitally, refer back as you see fit.

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