By Ethan Alter | Indiewire April 16, 2014 at 1:36PM
On paper, it's not hard to understand why FX decided that Joel and Ethan Coen's 1996 favorite "Fargo" would be the prime Coen-crafted candidate to expand into a TV series. For one thing, it's arguably the brothers' defining film both in terms of name recognition as well as the way it offers the purest distillation of their darkly comic worldview. It also fits nicely into the particular niche the network has carved out for itself over the years; stretching all the way back to their first major original series "The Shield," FX has built much of its reputation on regional crime dramas, with a library that has grown to include the Deep South goings-on in "Justified," the Southwest slayings on "The Border" and the Beltway espionage that occurs week in and week out on "The Americans." "Fargo" allows them to plant their flag in the Midwest and use that chilly backdrop as a staging ground for various kinds of malfeasance, up to and including murder.
Although FX is clearly counting on the "Fargo" brand name to hook curious viewers, both the network and the show's minders, including showrunner Noah Hawley, have repeatedly stressed that their "Fargo" has little to do with the Coens' "Fargo" beyond the title, the setting and the motivating crime-gone-wrong story device. (The filmmakers meanwhile have acknowledged the divide between the show and the film in their typical way: by not talking about it.) Despite their insistence, though, it's difficult to watch the premiere without mentally mapping the movie onto the series. Martin Freeman's Lester Nygaard may not be an exact doppelganger of William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard, for instance, but his plight—an ill-advised partnership with a criminal of dubious methods (Billy Bob Thornton)—and his just-this-shy-of-broad performance makes him seem like an awfully close relation.
Likewise, while Allison Tolman doesn't face the Herculean task of replacing Frances McDormand as pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, her intrepid investigating officer Molly Solverson does come equipped with Margie's dogged determination and general good humor. Overall, the similarities between the pilot episode and the film are striking enough that I at least kept wishing the new "Fargo" would either declare its independence more boldly or just let Jerry… uh, Lester be Jerry and be done with it. (And yet, I guess the pilot did accomplish its primary job of making me want to see more, if only to witness the exact moment when Hawley establishes the series as its own creature.)
I'll admit that some of my initial disappointment with "Fargo" also stems from the fact that there are two other Coen features I'd much rather have seen brought to basic cable ahead of this one: 1994's corporate satire "The Hudsucker Proxy" and 2009's "Why doth God hate me?" comedy "A Serious Man." Even though both are less saleable pitches than a wry Midwestern crime story, creatively they'd seem to translate more successfully to the TV model right out of the gate. (Not coincidentally, they're also two of the less commercially popular entries in the Coen canon, which might help modulate viewer expectations.)
The appeal of a small-screen revamp of "Hudsucker" lies in the idea of someone refining the shaky foundation the Coen's laid two decades ago. Their highest-concept—and highest-budgeted—feature at the time, "The Hudsucker Proxy" uses the excessively stylized form of a Frank Capra-by-way-of-Terry Gilliam feature to skewer the venal inanity of corporate America. It's a marvel of production design, unfolding on cavernous sets located inside towering skyscrapers. But the characters have a tendency to get lost amidst the late '50s-inspired scenery; even Paul Newman, one of the most magnetic actors to grace the big screen, is frequently upstaged by inanimate objects in the foreground and background, be it a ticker tape or the hand of the giant clock that gazes out at New York from the top of the titular company's headquarters.
The extravagant trappings have a tendency to suffocate the movie, but "Hudsucker"'s core story has never been timelier, with more than a few contemporary corporations displaying the same casual disregard for ethics, fair play and goodwill towards men practiced by Newman's cigar-chomping profiteer. Being forced to shrink the enterprise down to a TV budget scale might very well sharpen the characterizations without necessarily sacrificing all of the period flourishes that are a crucial part of the movie's aesthetic. Then again, time-shifting the televised "Hudsucker" to the present day would have its advantages, among them freeing the cast from feeling obligated to mirror older performance styles, like Jennifer Jason Leigh's distressingly robotic Rosalind Russell act. Watching "Hudsucker"'s wide-eyed puppet president Norville Barnes (originally played by an appropriately wide-eyed and gawky Tim Robbins) navigate the lush lifestyle enjoyed by today's absurdly well-compensated CEOs opens new comic possibilities as well. Finally, the extra room offered by a 10-episode run would allow for an exploration of the various nooks and crannies of the Hudsucker building—and larger business plan—only tantalizingly glimpsed in the feature.
There'd be no escaping the film-specified time period in a television adaptation of "A Serious Man," and a wise showrunner wouldn't want to anyway. Probably the closest the Coen's will ever get to autobiography, the movie draws on their childhood spent in a heavily Jewish suburban enclave in '60s-era Minnesota and recreates that time and place with the same specificity seen on such "Remember When?" nostalgia pieces like "The Wonder Years" and its current '80s companion piece, "The Goldbergs." Unlike those series, though, "A Serious Man" doesn’t view the past in an even slightly romantic light, with the directors treating their homestead with the same hilarious callousness that an Old Testament God lavishes on the film's poor, put-upon Job stand-in, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Larry's quest to understand why his Creator seems intent on torturing him through a series of major and minor humiliations occupies the bulk of the feature's runtime, but a TV series could expand the canvas and function as more of a portrait of an entire community rather than a single, screwed-up individual. One of the (to my mind, incorrect) knocks against the film is that it's too grotesque in its presentation of the folks who populate this Jewish 'hood, whereas an ongoing series would by necessity strive to humanize the various residents around Larry in order to keep viewers returning week after week. (Unless the writers opted to pursue the "2 Broke Girls" model of purposefully writing shrill caricatures, but that show's free-falling ratings indicate it shouldn't be viewed as much of a model…if its viewed at all.) But it's still possible for a (slightly) kinder "Serious Man" to carry plenty of bite—after all, it wouldn’t be authentically Jewish if you didn't feel somewhat guilty about laughing.