'Fargo''s First Episode is Like a Coen Brothers 'Greatest Hits'

by Isaac Chotiner | April 15, 2014

If one thing can be said about Joel and Ethan Coen, the famed brothers who have made movies ranging from Raising Arizona (1987) to No Country For Old Men (2007), it is that their films always have particular moods. Sometimes the mood works, as in the two films listed above. And sometimes it doesn't: Just try sitting through Intolerable Cruelty (2003) or The Ladykillers (2004). Still, no matter how successful or disappointing, each movie feels like the product of artists committed to their unique, often bizarre vision. 

The first episode of "Fargo," which aired Tuesday night on FX, and which is based on the Coens' 1996 film (arguably their best) of the same name, managed to do more than capture the atmosphere of that masterpiece, which is in itself a large accomplishment. The characters and setting and dialogue evoked other Coen films, too, and did so within the context of a fascinating plot. And yet the brothers, who executive produced the show, had (according to The New York Times) "no input" into its story or direction. Instead, the series appears to primarily be the brainchild of Noah Hawley, who wrote all ten episodes and told the Times, "I like to say we’re making No Country for Old Fargo." This was an ambitious goal, but to a remarkable degree Hawley and his team have succeeded, at least so far.

What was initially striking about Episode 1 was the degree to which various characters were based on people from the original movie, and yet also distinct. It's quite obvious that Martin Freeman's passive, absurd insurance salesman is a close relative of William H. Macy's doomed car salesman from the movie. And Allison Tolman's as-yet-undeveloped policewoman, Molly, is certainly related to the protagonist of the film, played brilliantly by Frances McDormand. But both characters are also different in significant ways, which make their character developments more surprising (because of our expectations) than they would otherwise be. The plot is set in motion by Freeman's desire to be rid of his wife, who is just as horrid as he is, and by the investigation into a local murder undertaken by Molly and another police officer, played superbly by Shawn Doyle.

But the character who truly departs from the Fargo universe is Bill Bob Thornton's assassin, who comes into town—the show and the movie share locations and snowy landscapes—and upends everyone's life. Magnetically inhabited by Thornton, this killer is like a slightly less deranged version of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. The difference is that Thornton has both a mischievous side (seen to great comic effect effect at several moments) and a more clearly thought-out (if still entirely deranged) morality. But both men are ruthless, and a scene late in the episode between Thornton and Colin Hanks, playing another cop, could almost have been lifted directly from No Country For Old Men.

It's nearly impossible to say where this story is headed, but in a mere hour of television, the creators have managed to evoke both Fargo's creepy environs and black humor; recall No Country For Old Men's sense of foreboding; and even mimic the abiding absurdity of other Coen classics such as The Big Lebowski (1998). I was reminded several times of their alternately moving and hilarious gangster pic Miller's Crossing (1990), and a colleague even pointed out similarities to their (in my opinion overrated) 2009 film, A Serious Man. And the combination of shocking violence—I was dispirited to see one of the episode's best characters killed off so quickly—and heartless humor (who on earth dreamed up those dreadful, hilarious brothers?) recalled Pulp Fiction.

The crucial question is whether the show can keep several balls in the air as it moves forward. The first episode had so many surprising plot developments and stylistically interesting moments that one can see the series eventually coming to feel like a mash-up of too many different genres and characters. "Fargo" will inevitably be compared to "True Detective," which had an even better premiere, but in hindsight wasn't quite able to resolve all the fascinating strands that were introduced in early episodes. FX might be glad it decided to tell this story in ten hours, rather than eight.

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