Fargo: 6 Characters in Search of a Movie

Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo on FX's Fargo.
Fargo (Photo: FX)

FX’s adaptation of Fargo features interesting character work, but so far sticks too closely to the movie from which it originated.

Last night FX aired the third episode of Fargo, the network’s 10-episode adaptation of the 1996 Coen Brothers movie. Well, adaptation is not quite the right word here. There are shared elements between the show and the movie, but the specific characters and plot points are different…enough.

Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman from Sherlock) murders his wife after a chance encounter with malevolent drifter Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). Malvo, who met Nygaard in a hospital waiting room after Lester was beat up by his high school nemesis Sam Hess, murders Sam because…because. Anyway, after killing his wife Lester called Lorne in a panic. Lorne came to his aid by killing the chief of police who came to investigate the disturbance. Deputy Molly Solverson1 suspects Nygaard did it, but she is tasked with figuring out who was behind the murders of Malvo’s other murders. Meanwhile, Malvo is trying to get the upper hand on all of Hess’ “legitimate” business connections, kiling and blackmailing as he sees fit.

As a character study, Fargo has been interesting to watch. Billy Bob Thornton plays a Loki-like character in his portrayal of Malvo, mixing carnage and an incredibly dark sense of humor. You’re not rooting for the guy, but will be captivated by what he does next. No clear motive has been established for why he has appeared in the greater Bemidji area, other than it’s something for him to do. Martin Freeman does a convincing job of playing a Minnesotan dontchaknow, though he seems a little too pulled together for someone who murdered his wife with no prior indication of malice.

My issue with the show is how it is simultaneously referencing the movie while trying to be its own thing. Like the movie, the story is “true” (names changed to protect survivors, events maintained to respect the dead) and takes place in the recent past—in this case 2006. Well, that’s what the timestamps say, but the setting for the show has set itself up to make the show seem far more antiquated. The idea of Molly as a police officer is baffling to everyone, dontchaknow, even though Marge (the character from the movie she was based on) was AWESOME and EXTREMELY PREGNANT in the 90s when that story happened. Did second wave feminism leave Minnesota in the intervening 15 years? These conflicts are highlighted in conversation scenes overflowing with overly exaggerated Minnesota accents. We get it, show.

The matchy-matchiness doesn’t stop there. Easter egg references are scattered and shoehorned throughout the series. In the second episode, Nygaard stops by a pharmacy to pick up some medicine for a wound on his hand. Solverson confronts him in the store and he runs away. As he leaves, the pharmacist yells out “You forgot your unguent!” I believe the executive producers—who include the Coens—think this is a gift for movie fans, but it creates a distraction that snaps the knowing viewer out of the scene.

Despite my annoyances, I’m sticking with the show. The lighting in scenes with Malvo has had fantastic execution, and the supporting cast has been full of surprises. Bob Odenkirk, formerly Saul of Breaking Bad, is a completely different character as Deputy Bill Oswalt. Colin Hanks, who looks and sounds exactly like his father, also has a slowly developing arc that is keeping my interest. Fargo is only 10 episodes, so I probably won’t bail unless my current annoyances get exacerbated.

Or if a woodchipper is dropped in just because.

Fargo airs Tuesdays at 10pm on FX.

  1. Solver-son? Oh, show.  

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About Mike McComb 656 Articles
Mike has been writing about TV online since 2008, when he started the blog WTF Little House on the Prairie? The blog was a project to practice writing about television analytically prior to getting an MA in Television-Radio-Film from Syracuse University, or as he likes to call it "TV Camp." After a lengthy stint at TVLatest, Mike wanted to launch a site that brought in classic TV, diamonds in the rough, and the shows everybody watches. E-mail: mike@whatelseison.tv