The Best Show You’re (Probably) Not Watching: Fargo

When I first heard that FX was adapting the Coen Brothers classic, Fargo, I had a whole string of doubts. How dare FX adapt a modern day classic like Fargo? How could any TV writer possibly hope to ape the idiosyncratic dialogue and style of a Coen Brothers film, their unique sense of humor? How could any actor hope to live up to Frances McDormand’s iconic performance as Marge Gunderson? It just all seemed too implausible, too ridiculous to ever work.

Fargo

The whole situation was really not helped by timing at all, either. Fargo first premiered in April of 2014, a mere month after the finale of the endlessly talked-about True Detective on HBO. True Detective‘s combination of fantastic lead performances, direction by Cary Joji Fukunaga, perfect timing with Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar win – it all created such cultural buzz for True Detective,  that at first, Fargo came across as a cheap imitation. It seemed as if someone at FX had heard that HBO was doing an anthology crime drama, and said “Hey, that sounds like a good idea!”

So, I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that not only is Fargo a fantastic television program on its own merits, it actually surpasses True Detective. As I’ve sometimes described Fargo to friends, Fargo is the show that True Detective wishes it were. It’s also probably the best show on TV right now. And that’s saying something.

The first thing to make clear about Fargo is that it’s not a remake of the movie. It’s an anthology series (each season is a different story), loosely inspired by, and set in the same universe as, the movie. Like the film, each episode begins with superimposed text indicating that…

This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in [year]. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

Allison Tolman
Molly Solverson, as played by Allison Tolman

The series has many of the iconic elements and stylistic choices that make the movie so iconic and memorable. And yet, it never feels as if Fargo is aping or copying the movie. All the elements are there for a reason, and no sacrifices have been made for the sake of homage. In casting an unknown actress, Allison Tolman, as the lead detective for the first season of Fargo, series creator Noah Hawley was certainly paying homage to the iconic and quirky Marge Gunderson; at the same time, Tolman was the secret weapon of season one, putting on a star turn filled with nuance as the tenacious Deputy Molly Solverson.

For that matter, the casting for Fargo has been as good as any on TV over the past couple of years. From small recurring roles like Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele as FBI agents Budge and Pepper, to Billy Bob Thornton as the violent force of nature that is Lorne Malvo, actors have been deployed throughout the series like small bombs, each with the perfect payload to deliver the right impact or comedic weight at just the right moment.

Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele as FBI agents Budge and Pepper
Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele as FBI agents Budge and Pepper

Fargo has delivered some of the most iconic and interesting characters we’ve seen on TV in recent history, but perhaps the area where Fargo has most shined in this regard is in delivering smart, interesting, and absolutely menacing villains . Casting an Oscar nominee like Billy Bob Thornton may seem like an easy shortcut to getting an iconic villainous performance, but make no mistake – Fargo can deliver on the villain front without a heavyweight actor. Season two’s Mike Milligan, a charismatic chatterbox who can intimidate those around him with a mere glance is perhaps even a more intelligent and layered villain than season one’s Lorne Malvo.

The villains of Fargo, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine)
The villains of Fargo, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine)

Beyond the writing, casting, and acting of Fargo, the directorial choices made are nearly perfect across the board. Choices of lighting, of film style, of when to use a montage set to music, of what music to use, always contribute in ways that do nothing but add to the feeling that the writers set out to create. In the most recent episode, entitled “Rhinoceros”, a montage sequence is deployed during which the villainous Mike Milligan reads an excerpt from the Lewis Carroll poem, “Jabberwocky”. It’s the kind of over-the-top touch that would feel cartoonish if executed poorly – but of course, Fargo gets it just right. It’s a chilling moment.

In its second season, Fargo continues to fire on all cylinders. It’s a sheer joy to watch every week, a perfect blend of dark humor, intense drama, and that light North Dakota (or, this season, Minnesota) touch that sets this show apart from any other. If you’re not watching it, you’re missing out.

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