Review: FX’s ‘Fargo’

Audacious experiment cements FX’s stature as premier basic cable network
Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo in a scene from 'Fargo.' / AP

Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo in a scene from 'Fargo.' / AP

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Audiences were justifiably suspicious of Fargo before its premiere. “A TV show that’s … what, based on the Coen Brothers movie?” one might have asked. “A sequel? A spinoff? This is odd. It’s odd, right? It’s odd.”

But, with season one in the books, it’s fair to conclude that the odd bet paid off. Equal parts murder-mystery, deconstruction of the anti-hero genre that has dominated the new golden age of television, and loving, almost fanboy-ish Coen Brothers tribute, Fargo’s success proves that there’s no network on basic cable more interesting than FX.

FX’s Fargo takes place in something like a mirror universe of the Coen’s Fargo. Molly (Allison Tolman) is a competent female police officer on the Bemidji, Minn., police force, trying to unravel a double murder that took place in the home of a nebbish insurance salesman named Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman).

What we know, and Molly doesn’t, is that Lester is responsible for half of the killings—he killed his hectoring wife with a hammer—and that a puckish paid killer by the name of Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is responsible for the other half.

Malvo’s murder of the town’s police chief gives Molly a personal stake in the case. She tenaciously pursues the killers despite efforts to dissuade her by new chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk). Meanwhile, Malvo has business throughout the region. The hitman’s path of destruction, and efforts to blackmail a local business owner (Oliver Platt) over an unfairly found fortune with ties to the original movie, throw the community into chaos.

The show is stocked with Coen-esque characters and character actors. There is a duo of hit men (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard), one deaf, both talkative, that a crime syndicate sends to track down Malvo. There’s Molly’s husband Gus (Colin Hanks), who realizes he’s not quite cut out for police work and longs to become a mailman.

Glenn Howerton of Always Sunny in Philadelphia has a fun turn as a fitness-trainer-cum-blackmailer who finds himself in way over his head. Stephen Root makes a brief appearance toward the end of a series as an extremely unlucky dentist. Comedy Central’s Key and Peele play a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque pair of Keystone Kop-style FBI agents.

Fans of the Brothers Coen will find Easter eggs from their oeuvre scattered throughout, such as a whiteboard in the background of a bar offering a happy hour deal on White Russians, and a shot from the finale in which Malvo pulls out of a used car lot with tags reading “DLR.” If you get these references, you’ll find a deeper layer of entertainment; if you don’t, your enjoyment of the series is in no way lessened.

There are twists and turns along the way, but the show’s through line is the evolution of Lester. He begins the season as a bullied beta male, told by his wife that he’s not a real man and by his younger brother that he’s a disappointment. Something inside him snaps and he seizes the day, bringing him fortune, glory, women—and trouble. As he loses his soul, Lester gains what he thinks he always wanted. But, in the world of the Coen Brothers, ill-won fortune has a nasty habit of biting people in the rear.

Lester was nudged down this dark path by Fargo’s most lasting creation, Malvo. Like some sort of trickster god, Malvo is there at just the right moment to push people down just the wrong path. He’s malevolent, if not quite malicious, according to Thornton. “Maybe he’s not all bad,” the actor told Esquire. “Maybe he creates these situations that were going to happen anyways, but he leads people to who they’re going to be. As he does with Lester, as he does with Molly. Malvo coming to town shows you who these people are and it shows them who they are.”

FX has dominated the year. It gave us a solid penultimate season of Justified and an outstanding second season of The Americans, the most reactionary show on television. It looks to continue its run of interesting work into the summer, with the debuts of the Guillermo del Toro-produced sci-fi horror series The Strain and Tyrant, a Middle East-based drama that looks something like Syriana by way of The Godfather. The final season of Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter’s Hamlet-on-Harleys, will kick off in September. And this is to say nothing of the network’s outstanding string of comedies, such as the just-concluded LouieArcherAlways Sunny, and a pair of newcomers, You’re the Worst and Married.

FX honcho John Landgraf deserves real credit for putting together the best slate of programming on basic cable.