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TV Review: 'Fargo' Honors the Coens' Original Vision While Allowing Us More Time in Their Wintery World

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire April 14, 2014 at 10:35AM

Much like the Oscar-winning film its based on, "Fargo" asks us to choose what's most important in life without sacrificing the greater good.
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Chris Large/FX Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo on the FX miniseries "Fargo."

"It's a red tide, Lester, this life of ours. The shit they make us eat day after day, the boss, the wife, etc, wearing us down, if you don't stand up to it, let 'em know you're an ape, deep down where it counts, you're just going to get washed away."

That's Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo on the new FX miniseries, "Fargo," an adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning film from 1996. Thornton's character is the hand that tips the dominos in writer, executive producer, and showrunner Noah Hawley's miniseries that the Coen brothers also produce. He's the stimulant. He's the creator of chaos, and what makes him truly unique, compelling, and magnetic is that he loves every second of it. Malvo will say and do anything to get a rise out of someone, sometimes with ulterior motives in mind and sometimes for the sheer joy of watching a young lad get caught with his penis in the gas tank of his boss's car. Malvo is Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight" without the makeup and scars, and while it's unwise to draw too many comparisons to a performance so deservedly iconic, Billy Bob Thornton merits equal accolades in "Fargo."

READ MORE: 'Fargo' Stars Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman Discuss Re-imagining the Coen Brothers for TV

Chris Large/FX Allison Tolman and Bob Odenkirk in "Fargo."

Malvo is also an entirely new addition to the "Fargo" universe, as are most of the Minnesota-natives populating the first four episodes of the 10-episode tale. While there are a few similarities in archetypes between the two creations, the miniseries' mimics the movie's tone and theme and not its story or structure. Yes, there's a pair of hitmen dispatched from Fargo to take care of some business in a rather grizzly fashion. Yes, there's a man plotting to kill his wife (kind of). Yes, there's a silly-sounding cop who's much smarter than her voice implies. Yet these are entirely different people than the ones played by Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, William H. Macy, and Frances McDormand in the film version, meaning there's really no need to identify "what makes the television version unique." It's all -- pretty much -- brand new. And it's what binds them together that truly makes both shine anywho.

Both the film and the miniseries open with title cards stating each story is true -- they're not. As with the film, the miniseries uses this bit of trickery as a means to make the audience feel even more at home with the strange combination of characters residing within. It works. The premiere episode, airing Tuesday night at 10pm on FX, starts slowly, introducing oddities in circumstance and reaction rather than throwing us into the mix right away. Nearly a feature in length (more than 70 minutes vs the hour-long episodes that follow it), "The Crocodile's Dilemma" is a prime example of how modern television allows for more flexibility in storytelling than anything preceding it. If they need an extra few minutes to drive home an emotional scene or include an extra joke or two, the cable networks are here to let them do it. Hawley wisely takes advantage of it to lure in viewers with the lovingly quirky world of small town Minnesota lifestyles before knocking them upside the head with the unwanted darkness of a world outside the white picket fences.

Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo is Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight" without the makeup and scars.

What both the film and the miniseries do so well is present two superficially opposite lifestyles without being condescending to either. They don't simply frame the polite town folk as good and the interloping antagonists from Fargo as evil. Instead, they're interested in what makes everyone the same. Neither good nor bad, but complex and unique like the snowflakes covering every inch of the wintery wonderland around them, both sets of characters are given a fair shake in part because each group is given good and bad eggs. We then watch them interact in a nondescript northern town named Bemidji, a setting that's isolating without being alienating. You feel like you're there with them in every home, bar, and small business, and you're able to identify with the idiosyncratic citizens despite the outsiders' more common diction and demeanor. You're torn between two worlds instead of choosing which one you belong in.

By establishing this dynamic, Hawley is clear to dig into the issues of his choosing by letting the stories unfold as they actually happened. Certainly he prods them along from time to time -- or he's simply the luckiest son of a gun in the world to be given speeches and scenarios like the ones Malvo creates in the first four episodes (I think not) -- but much of what we're asked to ponder outside the immediate mysteries set forth in the excellent premiere episode has to do with protecting what's important in life without sacrificing the greater good. Lester Nygaard, played with a perfect degree of reticent anger by Martin Freeman, draws a line in the sand around priorities not entirely of his choosing (Malvo has a hand in there). Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks, finally finding a role perfectly suited for his unique look and sound) decides to protect his daughter before she can remind him of his broader duty. Even Deputy Molly Solverson has to decide how she's going to move forward in a case that's far beyond what she's dealt with before. All of these decisions are set in motion by a man with no specific plan in mind. Anarchy is Malvo's end game, making for an incredibly appealing overarching motivation.

Though after four episodes it appears Lester's festering wound and troubled conscious may get the best of him in the end - if emerging characters in episode two don't beat him to it -- Malvo remains a wild card. Many of the locals seem destined for a specific end, but Malvo feels as unstoppable as he acts, destined to roam the countryside as a living myth. Unlike the other characters, Malvo isn't forced to make a decision. He forces others to make decisions. The speech he gives, quoted at the top of this review, has lasting consequences, but we don't know if he even means it. Despite saying it with complete conviction, Malvo may not care if he's washed away in the red tide himself -- and it's that level of self-sacrifice for the sake of decisive action that makes "Fargo" worth visiting one more time.

Criticwire GradeB+

Editor's note: The original review inaccurately stated the "Fargo" miniseries is based on true events. The show's opening credits stating as much were meant as an homage to the film's similar credits, which are widely known to be false. The review has been amended to reflect this information.

This article is related to: Fargo, Coen Brothers, FX, FX, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Television Review, Television