FX’s Fargo is a television spin-off series of the much loved, critically acclaimed and commercially successful 1996 film of the same name. Set in the same fictional universe as the film, as well as in the same state of Minnesota, the series principally tracks the exploits of Lorne Malvo, a ruthlessly efficient, manipulative criminal who crosses paths more than once with insurance salesman Lester Nygaard. This, as the authorities in the form of Molly Solverson and Gus Grimly try tenaciously to track him down. And to say more would spoil the brilliance of Fargo, as it’s not only a worth spin-off of the original film, it’s easily just as good and perhaps even better.
The snowy, bleak aesthetic is back, and it’s as good as it ever was.
So why should you be watching it? Well firstly, it’s one of the most immersive television programmes of recent years, and you’re hooked from the end of the first episode. This is in part due to the excellent characterisation, brought to life by the wonderful central performances of Billy Bob Thornton as Malvo, Martin Freeman as Lester, Allison Tolman as Molly and Colin “good acting seems to run in my family” Hanks, as Gus. All have their own fully-fleshed out personalities, with their little quirks and interpersonal relationships all adding to the authenticity of the drama. Indeed even Lorne Malvo is a likeable character – inherently evil, yes, but whilst he can be cold and menacing when he needs to be (and when he does, boy is it brilliant), like all great psychopaths he is able to dial up the charm when he needs it to get by. He’s a titan among all of the great characters, and watching his story unfold is as engaging as Fargo gets.
Indeed much like the original film, both sides of the law are shown in their significant entirety, and this gives both sides breathing space for both character development and the development of their relative stories, and of course, when they cross. This is again engaging, and when you see certain elements of one mixing with the other subtly, it’s as rewarding as when their paths actually physically cross. Linking to this, there is a minor plotline which ‘references’ Fargo beautifully – it’s very much a case of “Hey wait a second I recognise that-oh, I see what you did there Fargo, good job”. It’s all wrapped up in a neat little bow in its own arc, whilst still shaping the overall story, and it doesn’t come straight off the bat either – it comes unexpectedly, after viewers were beginning to assume that it was something else entirely.
But with that said, there are of course other more nuanced references to the 1996 film that inspired it. The snowy, bleak aesthetic for one is back, and it’s as good as it ever was. This, combined with the small-town everyone-knows-everyone humour is excellent, and it’s reminiscent of both the original film and of more recent black comedies like Hot Fuzz. With the Coens’ (who served as producers for the series) typical black comedy shining through the ‘Minnesota nice’ atmosphere and ‘feel’ of the small towns involved, a wit and sharpness is achieved that only few can even attempt, let alone perfect. Too much humour and the drama doesn’t work and feels forced, whereas the odd joke here and there can easily seem out of place if executed poorly. Fortunately, much like the film, Fargo strikes this balance perfectly, and the humour actually helps audiences to be more engaged with the characters and their dramas, rather than just seeing them as humourous quipping types and nothing else.
There is, however, a slight dip in quality around three quarters of the way through the series, and though this picks up again at the end of the following episode is soon forgotten, it’s still worth mentioning as it comes as quite a shock seven episodes in – time jumps unexpectedly and seemingly for no other reason other than because the writers couldn’t figure out a natural way to progress the plot – though it is done as best it could have. It is no coincidence that the weakest episodes are the ones with the least Malvo – he’s simply a great character. He adapts to his surroundings perfectly according to what he wants to get out of the situation, and two episodes in you get the impression that even if he was shot in the head he’d just get right back up and carry on as usual. He’s a true force of nature that at times seems truly unstoppable, and it’s to Thornton’s credit that he’s also a likeable character, even if he’s not a nice one. He’s charming but slimy, funny but ruthless – and like a microcosm of the Coens’ signature style, it works wonderfully.
Fargo is a series worthy of the name, a fitting tribute and expansion to the original film.
The rest of the cast are spectacular too; Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks and the young Joey King stand out in particular, but really there’s no dead weight that pulls you out of it as a whole. So in short, if you haven’t seen the original film, do so before watching the series, as you’ll be greatly rewarded, but regardless, Fargo is a series worthy of the name, a fitting tribute and expansion to the original film, with stellar acting, great characters and a gripping plot. An excellent addition to the recent surge in fantastic dramatic television, Fargo is not to be missed.
By Oliver Rowe