Review: ‘Fargo’ on FX a darkly pleasant change of pace

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Editor’s Note: This column contains spoilers for the first episode of the FX television show “Fargo.”

In 1996, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen released the dark comedy “Fargo.” It was not their debut nor was it their first film to find success with critics (all but one of their pre-“Fargo” films was certified “Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes). However, what “Fargo” did do for the brothers was to propel them to the next stratosphere of filmmakers.
The film earned the Coens an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and garnered several other Oscar nominations, including Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Picture. More importantly, at least to studio executives, “Fargo” made more than triple its budget, proving that Joel and Ethan Coen were now capable of being marketable directors.

Martin Freeman plays Lester Nygaard in the new FX series, "Fargo." Illustration by Samantha Gray/Digital First Media

Martin Freeman plays Lester Nygaard in the new FX series, “Fargo.”
Illustration by Samantha Gray/Digital First Media

As a result of the film’s success, the Coen Bros. were able to make movies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Burn After Reading,” as well as prestige films like “No Country for Old Men” and “A Serious Man.” In fact, since “Fargo’s” release nearly 20 years ago, Joel and Ethan Coen have won three more Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director to go with the one for “Fargo’s” screenplay, and have been nominated nearly a dozen additional times. Simply put, due in large part to the success of “Fargo,” Joel and Ethan Coen have found further success in the film industry and have basically conquered Hollywood.
Now, their name alone is enough to get a movie made and fans will flock to the theaters (or, more likely, computers) to watch their films without even knowing the tiniest details of the plot. In short, the names of Joel and Ethan Coen, the Coen Bros., have become synonymous with a certain style of filmmaking and a certain, high degree of quality.
Now, nearly 20 years after their initial breakthrough, the brother filmmakers have brought their name and all that is associated with it to the small-screen with FX’s “Fargo,” a miniseries that debuted on the network last week. The show airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
While the Coens only get executive producer credit and apparently have had very little involvement, the show itself has a very Coen Bros. feel to it. Very, very Coen Bros. The first episode alone is filled with enough winks and nods to the fans of Coens that viewers may need to hop on a treadmill at Hardbodies Gym to run off the excitement.
The cold opening of the show’s first episode includes a nearly identical, equally as fictitious message about the truthfulness of the story. Later in that same episode, a sign can be seen in the background that offered a special on white Russians (The Dude’s beverage of choice in “The Big Lebowski”).
Even beyond those little Easter eggs, the overall aesthetic of the show, from the lighting to the tone and pacing, seems to be one giant tribute to the Coen brothers. Heck, on the surface, the show even appears to be basically a serialized version of the movie, right down to the bumbling pushover, the criminal outsider and the aww shucks, down-home police genius. However, those kinds of sweeping generalizations would not be accurate. While the look of the show is certainly similar to Coen Bros. movies in general, the show itself has a very different, much darker feel to it.
The movie, at its core, was the story of one man, Jerry Lundegaard (played by William H. Macy). This man, while clearly not respected by his family or his peers and a bit of a pushover, was far more desperate for wealth than he was for respect. All of the events that unfolded in the film were somehow connected to Lundegaard’s incompetence. Every arrest, every injury and every death that occurred during the original “Fargo” are a direct result of the greed of a single man, Jerry Lundegaard.
In the show, though, while Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard seems to be the star of the show in the same style as Macy’s Lundegaard and every bit as incompetent, it is in fact the criminal outsider Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), that is driving the narrative and is doing so in a much more interesting way.
While Lundegaard was driven by greed, it would seem that Lorne Malvo is driven simply by an apparent desire to create chaos — and then laugh at the fallout. During the pilot, no fewer than five characters were killed, either directly or indirectly, by the actions of Malvo, and that says nothing of his actions that led not to death but general calamity.
Lorne Malvo isn’t necessarily after money or power. He just wants to watch the world burn. He created a moment of envy to get a teenager to attack his brother with a hockey stick. He cited pride as he convinced a young motel employee to urinate in the gas tank of his boss’s car and he threw out the rulebook to convince Freeman’s Lester Nygaard to act as if there were no laws, which ultimately led to the murder of Nygaard’s wife and of the local chief of police.
Although the goal of creating chaos could turn some viewers off from watching “Fargo,” the idea of having a villain whose sole purpose is to do just that is a refreshing breath of fresh air for television, not unlike the gulps of air that one receives riding a rollercoaster, which is somehow an appropriate analogy for a show like “Fargo” and a character like Lorne Malvo.

Follow Tony Fioriglio on Twitter @TheTonyFiorigli.

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