“Some roads you shouldn’t go down. Maps used to say ‘There be dragons’…”
It’s safe to say that when the words “Fargo” and “TV show” were uttered, everyone did their best Marge Gunderson impression and collectively exhaled: “Oh, nah”. A remake was a road, you assumed, nobody should go down. Now, though, Noah Hawley’s TV show has arrived – and it’s not really a remake at all.
There are similarities between the Coen brothers’ chillingly hilarious masterpiece and Hawley’s new story, but they’re shadows more than reflections; intriguingly misshaped lumps of snow rather than perfect icy replicas. Gone (for now) are Steve Buscemi’s funny-looking criminal and Peter Stormare’s straight-faced partner. Gone is Frances McDormand’s pregnant policewoman. Gone, too, is the faked kidnapping.
One thing that does remain? The loser salesman – now hawking insurance rather than cars. Martin Freeman plays Lester Nygaard, a guy so put-upon he makes Kevin Spacey in American Beauty look like a Nickelodeon cartoon. Despised by his wife, ignored by his customers, he’s a waste of lungs: even his washing machine hates him. When an old high school bully bumps into him on the street and starts tormenting him, the only surprise is that it hasn’t happened before.
He and his wife visit his brother, Chaz (a delightfully smarmy Joshua Close), where they watch him massage a joint of ham with a smug grin. Afterwards, he turns to Lester. “Sometimes, I tell people you’re dead.”
That’s where Fargo finds the original film’s DNA: in its dark humour. The laughs that do come are as bleak as they are unexpected. King of them is Lorne Malvo, a drifting murderer played by a menacing Billy Bob Thornton – a guy who’s kinda scary-looking but finds time to be funny too. Cutting through Lester’s life after a chance encounter at hospital, he sets the salesman on a path not unlike the one faced by William H. Macy in the show’s big screen counterpart: a snow-covered spiral down into Bad Things.
For those who miss Marge, Allison Tolman’s Molly plays the budding cop hero nicely – although it’s her police sidekick’s wife with the baby. Her “Oh, yah” gets an airing, but in the mouth of a man having sex. If you’re looking for the woodchopper, it’s there, but it’s offscreen: Hawley has taken the whole movie and shoved it in there.
As he mucks around with those roles, chopping and changing our expectations several times even in the first episode, the blood soon starts to splatter over the white Minnesota ground with an impressive confidence. Freeman’s initially off-putting accent settles as he warms into the part of the increasingly-heated Lester, while Thornton’s lethal loner recalls No Country for Old Men more than Fargo. Together, they create that Coen-esque vibe in something that’s decidedly not the Coen narrative we know and love.
Pointing the car’s headlights in what seems to be a very different direction, Episode 1 of Fargo follows Lorne as much as Lester as he tears apart our familiar memories of the town. “Some roads you shouldn’t go down,” he warns a cop. “Maps used to say ‘There be dragons’. Now, they don’t.” If the series can continue this form going forwards, it looks like a road that’s certainly worth going down. Oh, yah.
Fargo the TV series is now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.