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With Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, FX’s “Fargo” Makes a Surprisingly Smooth Transition to the Small Screen

With Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, FX's "Fargo" Makes a Surprisingly Smooth Transition to the Small Screen

Opening with the same bogus “Based on a True Story” disclaimer as Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 movie, FX’s “Fargo” sets alarm bells ringing from its opening frames. But what showrunner Noah Hawley has done is not to Xerox the Coens but copy them freehand, embellishing and reimagining the movie in a way that feels neither false to nor slavishly imitative of it. I’ll have more to say on the pilot tomorrow, once I can safely spoil its conclusion, but for now, here’s what critics are saying about its surprisingly successful and almost uniformly lauded transition to the small(ish) screen. The first episode (of 10) airs on FX tonight.

Christopher Orr, the Atlantic

The idea of making Fargo into a TV show has been around almost since the movie itself hit theaters, and it’s always seemed to me a terrible one given the idiosyncratic nature of the source material. In 1997 a pilot was even shot, though never picked up, featuring a pre-“Sopranos” Edie Falco in the role of Marge Gunderson, the iconic police chief played by Frances McDormand in the film. But the FX show takes a different approach from such would-be sequels, bringing back not the original characters but instead merely their types. And the result is, to my considerable surprise, very, very good.

James Poniewozik, Time

The new FX series (premieres April 15) is not a remake of the 1996 Coen brothers movie — though the brothers are executive producers and the Minnesota settings and accents (uffda!) are largely the same. The best way to describe “Fargo” is to say what Mark Twain reputedly said about history. It doesn’t repeat, but — dark, off-kilter, and bitingly funny — it rhymes.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

The last half-hour of the 90-minute pilot is the strongest section, because it develops a tone that could be described as Coen-esque, but does so organically, in a way that assures you that it will become its own thing. The next three episodes get incrementally weirder, stronger, and more original, to the point that you forget to measure this “Fargo” against its namesake, or against any of the Coens’ masterworks, and simply enjoy the odd, sour, frightening, occasionally splendid thing in front of you.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

This is not the improbably perfect 98-minute blend of brutal crime and quirky humor that the movie was, but nor is it a pale, delayed copy, either. Over the course of the first four episodes (and hopefully over the remaining six), the TV “Fargo” establishes itself as its own wonderful thing that is connected to the movie without being a recreation of it, and that doesn’t seem unworthy of the name.

David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle

There’s an ambitiously mad brilliance to Hawley’s concept, not just in creating something brand new that harks back to an unforgettable classic, but in capturing the thematic essence of the Coens’ dark comedy.

Alessandra Stanley, New York Times

Like the movie, the series is peculiar, with an irregular rhythm and lots of black humor, and it is also oddly winning. The story is presented as a true crime, though it isn’t. Stretched over 10 episodes, the suspense lies less in whodunit than in the strange ways these quirky characters react to violence.

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times

An atmospheric homage that quickly stands on its own nimble feet, FX’s experiment in cinematic crossover does take some getting used to. Written by Noah Hawley (with the Coens’ blessing) this “Fargo” is at once eerily similar and completely different. The first episode especially is a bit like being caught in a dream; everything’s intensely familiar, yet several ticks off.

Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly

The dark absurdist tone doesn’t land quite as cleanly as in the film, and there’s the enormous absence of goddess Frances McDormand, who brought such great plainspoken heart to the movie’s otherwise bleak landscape. So one watches the pilot with furrowed brow, convinced that this was an ill-conceived experiment. But do keep watching, because the show boasts unique and satisfying hooks.

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter

For all the humor that cuts through “Fargo,” Hawley makes sure to stay true to what the Coen brothers insisted throughout the original film — that even in the blinding white of nice Minnesota, darkness will inevitably come to town. 

Ben Travers, Indiewire

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.

Brian Lowry, Variety

FX has sometimes felt guilty of indulging in darkness gratuitously, but the true-crime label and organic atmosphere of this world combine to prevent “Fargo” from feeling that way even at its most grisly. Part of that has to do with a black-comedy streak (starting with those goofy accents) clearly designed to evoke the movie.

Willa Paskin, Slate

In the film, the violence that occurs is a kind of bolt from the blue, the worst thing that has happened in this modest place. In the series, most of the characters are so sour-hearted, it seems like corruption and violence are an everyday matter. If you’re going to remake something as concise and self-sufficient as “Fargo,” there should be a reason, and pointing out that unexpected evil lurks in the hearts of men is not a very good one. For that we have, and I am just barely exaggerating, almost every other drama on television.

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