FX’s new FARGO is the story of a pregnant police chief (Frances McDormand) tracking a pair of hit man (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) near the town of Fargo. The guys have been hired by a local failure (William H. Macy) to kidnap his wife in order to extort money from the woman’s father. But during the abduction, she is accidentally killed, setting off a series of dangerous, somehow funny, events. And bodies get put into a wood chipper.
No, wait a second. That’s the excellent 1996 film of the same name. Remarkably, pretty much none of what I said in the preceding paragraph applies to the story of the series, which goes in its own direction. I’m not saying that FX’s FARGO abandons the premise entirely. Although none of the character names have been changed, there are some very familiar character types.
Wimpy Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, Sherlock, The Hobbit) encounters by chance a hit man named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton, Armageddon), who encourages Lester to find his inner man. The local police chief (Shawn Doyle, Big Love), who has a pregnant wife (Julie Ann Emery, Hitch), and his deputies, Molly (Allison Tolman, Sordid Lives: The Series) and Bill (Bob Odenkirk, Breaking Bad), are looking for Lorne, though they don’t yet know who he is.
By taking some characters that seem a lot like the ones in the movie and keeping the setting and the accents, FARGO ties itself to the earlier work enough to bring the fans of it in. Yet, in making some very different choices with the story from the first scene onward, it makes the action unpredictable, keeping viewers guessing what might happen and who could die next.
This FARGO expertly maintains the balance between blood and laughs that one might expect. Characters (yes, plural) that might be considered important die in the very first installment. At the same time, the dialogue and bumbling happenstances, especially when Lester is around, make the proceedings enjoyable and lighter than one may expect from a program with a high body count. There are numerous occasions when I could not help but laugh out loud, a distinction most sitcoms fails to reach on a weekly basis.
The pilot is titled “The Crocodile’s Dilemma.” For those unfamiliar with the logic paradox, this refers to a crocodile kidnapping a child. The croc promises the father that he can have the kid back if and only if the father is able to accurately predict whether the crocodile will give him back the boy. If the father states that the crocodile will not give back the son, then he has correctly predicted and the croc must hand over the boy, though then that means the father didn’t correctly predict because the crocodile didn’t keep him.
If that makes your brain hurt, I understand. FARGO isn’t quite as complex as all that. What it is, though, is a well-crafted series of events, some from cause and effect, others arising by chance, that intermix in such a way that there doesn’t seem to be an easy, logical way out for the main players. Since the show has ten episodes to tell their story, it isn’t obvious yet how unwinnable the scenario will be, but it does feel like this is the type of situation set up in “The Crocodile’s Dilemma.”
The cast is truly fantastic. Freeman and Thornton, of course, have a body of work that implies they can handle themselves, and they do, beautifully. But so do the rest of those named above, along with Kate Walsh (Private Practice), Colin Hanks (The Good Guys), Keith Carradine (Dexter), and numerous other guest and recurring roles, with a heck of a lot more famous folks signed to appear in later hours. Whoever put together this crew deserves major credit, as FARGO would not work without its cast.
Strangely, there are also a couple of parts that are left wanting, mostly because they are not played by big names, but seem like big names should have been obtained, meaning it feels like FARGO failed to get its first choice and settled for a replacement. The bully introduced in the first hour is definitely a “Tom Wilson type,” but is not portrayed by Tom Wilson. We also meet a “Stephen Merchant type” later on. I could be wrong about the second-choice standings, but these parts feel just too close to those performers to be played by anyone else.
Other than that, though, I have no complaints. FARGO is a compelling, highly entertaining masterpieces, crafted so intelligently, and executed in the best of methods. The tiny touches, such as a message spelled out on Lester’s refrigerator, kick the quality up yet another notch. I am already a firm fan of this miniseries. FARGO airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.