Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Fargo

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Tuesdays at 10:00 PM on FX

On the list of movies that don't really need a remake, Fargo would be very close to the top.  The 1996 Coen brothers classic crime tragicomedy is such a singular vision, so specific in its regional examination and so complicated in its morality, that it seems like something that could go dangerously wrong in hands belonging to anyone other than those two auteurs.  That reasoning is exactly why the FX show of the same name felt like such a bad idea from the very beginning.  The fact that the network came up with the concept and only consulted the Coens later was worrisome enough, but most of all, this adaptation just felt downright unnecessary.

It turns out that we should never underestimate America's smartest, most interesting network.  The original Fargo had an idiosyncratic world that we only got to see a corner of, and FX did the right thing by putting us back in it without necessarily giving us a remake.  Fargo the TV show is less a retelling of the movie's story as it is a repurposing, riffing on the same themes but at a different angle.  The show centers on Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, trying his best to transform his British accent into a Minnesotan one and not always succeeding), a beleaguered insurance salesman.  Lester can't seem to catch a break from anyone around him: his wife nags and harasses him, he gets beat up by his old high school bully early into the 90-minute pilot, and not even children show him much respect.  Showrunner Noah Hawley's script and Freeman's performance make you feel deep sympathy for Lester in the early going -- you can't help but want to just lend him a hand.

That sympathy is then used brilliantly later, when the episode really starts to come together, as everything turns on a moment of shocking violence committed by Lester.  Anybody familiar with the film knows that the plot also involves the main character having a part in an unforgivable violent act, but the show does such a good job of making Lester so milquetoast that even up to the moment, you think "but he won't really do it, right"?  It's a scene that tips the viewer off to what the show is really about, denouncing the idea of violent fantasy as a result of impotent rage, while implicating us along the way.  All you want is for Lester to do something for most of the episode, but then it's horrifying when you get your wish.  And yet the show treats it like an action that's simultaneously wrong and inevitable, which makes it all the more tragic and complicated.

Yet the show is not just about the misadventures of Lester Nygaard.  At its heart, Fargo is an ensemble drama, and the pilot spends much of its time introducing the show's colorful array of characters.  The bizarre Midwestern quaintness of many of them provide laughs, but they're not just cartoons.  In a short amount of time, they feel like people with rich, full lives; particularly Deputy Molly Solverson (newcomer Allison Tolman).  If there's one reason to consider the show worthwhile, it's for introducing the world to Tolman, who's such a warm and lively presence.  She could be written off as a retread of Frances McDormand's character in the movie, but this world needs a Marge Gunderson type to keep things from tipping over into complete darkness, and in that way Tolman is perfect.

But even the more recognizable actors breathe life into their roles.  Bob Odenkirk, Kate Walsh, and Colin Hanks all make an immediate impression; and we've still got people like Glenn Howerton, Oliver Platt, and Adam Goldberg coming along the way.  Then there's Billy Bob Thornton, who plays Lorne Molvo, a mysterious drifter who sets this bloody chain of events in motion.  Fargo's greatest quality is its ability to make a case for there being a show centered around any one of these characters, and its strongest case lies within Molvo, who is endlessly fascinating.  His mixture of nihilism, dark wit, and general oddness is like the show's style in a nutshell, and Thornton plays the part perfectly.

That this first episode was successful should come as no surprise on paper.  After all, it's got a loaded cast, an interesting sandbox to play in, and it airs on the network with the highest batting average over the last few years.  But there are so many ways that things like these go wrong that it's still completely unexpected for it to be this great.  In just 90 minutes, Fargo went from something I greeted with a cocked eyebrow to a show I welcome with open arms.  According to advanced reviews, the next few episodes improve upon the first one.  It's hard to wrap my head around the idea that anything could get better than the pilot, which excellently blends comedy with drama and delivers a wonderfully cinematic experience the whole way through.  Regardless, I'm ready for the ride.

Grade: A

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