FX’s enjoyable “Fargo,” written and executive-produced by Noah Hawley, is both an homage to and an extended riff on the beloved 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen.
The good news about this 10-episode series is that it’s not a complete rip-off, but its deep familiarity with the film’s tone and dark humor leaves it wide open to moments of redundancy. How much “you betcha” and “uff da!” can be layered on before the premise wears thin?
In the ways that matter most, this “Fargo” (premiering Tuesday night) does everything a TV show should do when it’s based on a movie — it makes you recall how much you loved it the first time around while advancing a new tale in the same snow-blown, upper-Midwestern milieu.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as the mysterious Lorne Malvo, a rogue hit man who comes to the small town of Bemidji, Minn., after an on-the-job mishap. In a hospital waiting room, Lorne meets an unhappily married insurance salesman, Lester Nygaard (“Sherlock’s” Martin Freeman), who has just had another run-in with Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady), the bully who used to torment Lester in high school and still does.
Wishing aloud for Sam’s death, Lester unwittingly sets off a series of murders — all of which are carried out in the same blunt and meticulously cold matter-of-factness of the film. “Fargo” even employs the same Coen canard of a pre-show disclaimer that the events depicted are a “true story,” only some names have been changed. (If you believe that, then “you don’t have the sense of a clam,” as one of “Fargo’s” characters puts it.)
The first episode leans so heavily on the original “Fargo’s” delightful sendup of jes’ folks who are “Minnesota nice” that it verges on becoming a facsimile, as if someone’s community theater decided to stage their own “Fargo.” Freeman’s Lester is clearly modeled on William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard — a hapless loser who discovers his propensity for evil, yet lacks the criminal skills to completely cover up his misdeeds.
Old hat? Yer darn tootin’, yet I strongly recommend that you stick with the series; by the third episode, “Fargo” confidently stretches in a direction that is uniquely satisfying. There are a lot more characters and entanglements to play with here, and the cast — including Colin Hanks and “Breaking Bad’s” Bob Odenkirk — is exceptionally good. As Lorne Malvo, Thornton is doing some of his best work in recent memory, playing a character who is arbitrarily malevolent and even reminiscent of the Devil.
Allison Tolman plays Bemidji Police Officer Molly Solverson, a younger suggestion of the character Frances McDormand won an Oscar for playing in the film. As Molly pursues leads that appear to link several recent deaths in Bemidji, she is thwarted by a thick-headed superior, Deputy Bill Oswalt (Odenkirk). She instead finds an ally in an underachieving Duluth police officer, Gus Grimly (Hanks), a single dad whose conscience is bothered by a disturbing encounter with Lorne.
“Fargo” wouldn’t be “Fargo” without its constant reminders of how the most ordinary among us are capable of committing shockingly indifferent acts of evil (even those of us who are employed in what one character describes as “the cutthroat world of regional trucking”), which is why it plays so well against all those cheerful manners and Lutheran sensibilities. As cold and nasty as it gets out there, the show offers the solace of a warm, neighborly casserole and extra-thick socks. The Fargo of “Fargo” is less a literal location than a rumination on the frozen lakes and prairies that represent the iciness in some people’s souls. It remains fixated on a notion that evil flourishes best among the oblivious.
Watching this new “Fargo” make expert use of the film’s deliberate and almost slack-jawed sense of pace, one is struck by how the show’s structure differs from the current crop of high-style TV crime dramas. In “Fargo,” the viewers know more than any of the characters, as opposed to “True Detective,” “The Bridge,” “The Killing,” “The Following” and easily a dozen other brutal detective series in which the viewers are jerked around on leashes and made to sniff out the clues on our own, often based on obscure hints and overwritten dialogue.
The beauty of “Fargo” is watching its plainspoken inhabitants from above, knowing full well who is responsible for what, and giggling as the worst of them dig themselves deeper and deeper into a hole.
(90 minutes) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.