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“Here We Go Again, Don’tcha Know?” FARGO Episode 1 Review- ‘The Crocodile’s Dilemma’

Fargo The Crocodile's Dilemma Billy Bob Thornton Martin Freeman

These opening paragraphs are safe from spoilers. A bright, blinking warning will arise before I do anything that will make any of you hate me.

There’s a poster on the wall of down-on-his-luck insurance salesman Lester Nygaard’s basement in FX’s new miniseries Fargo, obviously based off of the amazing movie of the same name. It’s a cookie cutter inspirational poster depicting a school of yellow fish swimming in one direction, and a single red fish in the middle swimming the opposite way. In bold type it says, “What If You’re Right, and They’re Wrong?” It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d find on the walls of a third grade classroom, next to a gorilla who tells you to read books and beneath the banner of cursive letters that stretches across the top of the classroom that you’d study religiously for weeks only to never use again. Lester (Martin Freeman in a damn fine performance) desperately wants to be the red fish, even if he is anything but. He wants the entire world that continues to beat him down to wake up to the fact that he is the red fish, who has been doing everything right. But he’s just another yellow fish that isn’t very good at anything.

I didn’t have to flex many of my critic skills to pick up on this. Fargo really wants me to get it. The poster is featured prominently on several occasions, and gets damaged during a crucial plot point more than once over the course of this jam-packed pilot. It and almost everything else in this episode wants to get one major point across: “Our name might be ‘Fargo,’ but that’s about it.”

And, largely, that holds true throughout. A few things remain constant from the Coen Brothers classic. We open up with the same set of title cards, informing us that “This Story Is True.” But besides the setting and a few scenes inspired by those from the film, we are dealing with an entirely different beast here. The characters don’t even have the same names, and the plot seems to have little concern with following the original film to any significant degree. Those that have watched the pilot know that the 1996 version’s kidnapping plot is promptly thrown out the window as a non-option in this episode alone.

These differences are definitely for the best overall. Fargo is one of my personal favorite films of all time (#6 on my Top Ten), and I guarantee I am not alone in thinking it is a near-perfect masterpiece. Sticking to the plot and themes of it too closely would leave the show feeling like a useless, unnecessary clone. Which, to be fair, I myself marked it as before ever watching it.

Knowing as little about the development process of this show as I do, I would guess that this show was not originally titled “Fargo.” It probably had a different setting, amount of snow, and expectations. And, as these things tend to do from time to time, it had a recognizable brand name slapped on it to increase awareness. It makes a good amount of business sense, and draws eyeballs immediately. It’s how literally every Die Hard sequel came to be. But, unlike the Die Hard sequels, this one promises to be good, and stay good for longer than the net time it takes a character to crash a helicopter with a car. It’s almost unfair to compare this show, which seems like it’s going to be great in its own right, to the film. So, from here on out, as I venture into the spoilers of the actual episode itself, I will endeavor to talk about FX’s Fargo on its own terms. There will be a section at the end for a discussion of what has changed, but for the next however-many wordy, overlong paragraphs, I will not discuss the film Fargo.

Those who have not watched the episode should leave now. If you just wish to know if the new Fargo is worth watching, it so very, very is. 8/10 Oh Hey There’s!

Episode Spoilers have arrived. Turn back now, weary, wide-eyed traveler.

Everything on this show feels inevitable. I mean that in the best possible way. Episode Director Adam Bernstein has the show teach us how to watch it as we go along. We know Lester Nygaard, the well-meaning if incompetent punching bag that he is, is about to snap. He goes so far as to punch his own brother with an off-screen right hook I’m sure would have been great. We the viewer (and fans of the original film I promised that I wouldn’t talk about) know there is no way Mrs. Nygaard is going to make it out of that vengeance unscathed. We knew that incredible detective Vern Thurman, with the pregnant wife at home and eager-eyed rookie underneath his wing, was never going to leave this series alive. It all felt like the obvious end to the dramatic train that we were on.

What was less easy to predict, however, was how soon these moments were to coming about. Namely, they were in the pilot. The scene were Vern cornered Nygaard in his house with the freshly-hammered corpse of his wife in the basement felt ripped straight out of a penultimate episode, something saved for the last moments before a season finale. But we’re given them in the pilot episode, and by the time the credits roll, the moment in most shows where normalcy is established for the show to come, Lester Nygaard wakes up in a hospital bed, not yet a prime suspect for the crimes he committed, and Billy Bob Thornton’s cunning killing machine Lorne Salvo is off in Duluth scaring Colin Hanks. The rules of television, narrative, drama, and common human decency dictate that this is far from the last time Freeman and Billy Bob will occupy the same frame, which is great news because these two have an unpredictably dynamite chemistry. Their scene together in the hospital is pure magic, one that will be very difficult to top in the weeks to come.

That scene brings up another positive for the show, which is just how “cinematic” this all feels. The cinematography and camerawork are beautiful, often using long, unbroken takes and two shots to really keep things focused and direct, and remind us that, yes, this is based off of a movie that, no, I am still not going to talk about. The same goes for Nygaard and Salvo’s later scene in the diner, where Nygaard realizes just what it is that he has done. Even other high budget, ambitious shows (like Game of Thrones, which you can find my more ribald and comical weekly reviews of here) still have a bit of a stagey feeling to them that is just short of feature film quality. Fargo is beautiful. Not that that would make a poorly-written show watchable. Most shows simply just don’t have the time to make things look Paul Thomas Anderson-level gorgeous. They have a week to film thirty minutes to an hour of television, something many films would take more than a month to accomplish. It isn’t what would make or break a piece of television, but it only adds to what is already a solid, solid product.

What I find strange is that Fargo is airing not on FX, but on FXX, the cable channel’s comedy offspring. I suppose Fargo is technically a comedy. At times it is very darkly funny, particularly as Lester bashes in his wife’s head with a hammer muttering about how sorry he is. It just feels out of congress with FXX’s other material, which consists of shows with a much different ratio of dick jokes to murder.

But, in the end, it’s all cable. The usual staples are there. There’s a scene in a strip club, for instance, and there’s a proportional amount of gore. I actually admire Fargo’s restraint. None of the violence here is too gaudy. It’s very measured and appropriate, and the squib work with the blood effects is remarkably tame for a show that doesn’t have to be. It does share a mother channel with American Horror Story of all goddamned things. It doesn’t take much joy in the killings, looking on them as if murder is some sort of bad thing. There is nothing here as hauntingly beautiful as Hannibal constructs week to week between tampon commercials on a channel most people only use to watch the Olympics. But, amongst all that restraint, the show did manage to work in the word “Nigger,” so it appears that all bets are off.

The show’s only major obstacle, really, besides the occasional joke that runs just a hair too far (Officer Solverson tackling a child, for instance) is that watching Martin Freeman speak without a British accent is more jarring than one might suspect. He is, perhaps, the world’s most spectacularly British man, but here he adopts an appropriate Minnesota accent that mostly works. There are moments where the Kingdom shines through, but they are few and far between, and Freeman manages to give a really great performance even so.

Thornton is also great in a role previously occupied by Steve Buscemi in the Film That Must Not Be Named. He sort of takes the part and owns it, giving us a cunning, intelligent killer whose only major fault is that he is a murdering psychopath. He knows exactly how to game the people he meets. He finds the weak point and really sticks a knife in it as it has sex with a stripper in a janitor’s closet. The way he games Colin Hanks’ Gus Grimley is terrifying, and all of his material here, in the hands of a lesser actor working with a director who has done less Breaking Bad, could have come off as really cliché but feels so fresh and new as the star of The Ice Harvest tells it to you.

Fargo’s real ace in the acting hole is Allison Tolman as Molly Solvenson, a talented, fresh-eyed officer of the law who now has a lot more responsibilities on her hands. There’s an innocence to her that works really well in counterpoint with the violence she has seen and is sure to see for the rest of the series. Solvenson will be put to the test, her will and bright determination pushed through the wood chipper as she tries to unravel the unbelievable case she has been given. Hopefully, the show’s lone female character will have some strong material to come, to help this actress, who has but a handful of IMDb credits to her name, stand out against heavyweights like Freeman, Thornton, and Bob Odenkirk.

There’s a lot of set-up here (including a scene TV Tropes will be forced to call Chekhov’s Giant Goddamned Case of Guns), and after watching the episode I am genuinely feeling that all-important sensation in drama of really, really wanting to know what happens next. I know that I’ll be checking out Fargo on a weekly basis, and there will be reviews here for anyone that wants them.

Fargo is a dense, dark show anchored by a trio of strong performances and some good writing that reminds us of classic Coen without trying to ape it too closely. I mean, if the Coen Brothers are producing this thing, how bad can it possibly be?

Final Verdict: 8/10 Fish Posters.

And now…

BUT IT’S DIFFERENT THAN THE MOVIE

–The biggest immediately noticeable difference, besides the whole plot being different, is the noticeable absence of Margie. Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson is the center around which Fargo (1996) revolves, a powerful performance that netted McDormand her only Oscar to date. I suppose it was wise of Fargo (2014) to not try and replace McDormand and just send Fargo in a totally new direction with a different lady cop. Originally it seems as if they divided Marge into the Thurman family, taking the great cop part of her and implanting it into the not-long-for-this-world Vern, and taking the pregnancy part of her and putting it into his wife, which guaranteed that he would die at some point. But Detective Solverson seems like a fine replacement that ought to give us something different enough to where we won’t even be thinking about McDormand by the time Fargo (2014) closes out in a few weeks.

–There are two other big absences of note. It seems as if Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud has been either cut from the narrative entirely, or serves some sort of different role in the universe. This isn’t too much of a bummer, as giving Lorne a partner only would have served to slow things down in this pilot, but it does really cut down on our odds of seeing something put through a wood chipper on basic cable, which is more than a little bit of a bummer.
The other missing fellow is Wade Gustafson, father of Lester’s kidnapped or murdered wife, depending on who you ask. There’s plenty of occasion for him to come in now that our Mrs. Nygaard has bitten the dusty hammer as it impaled her in the face, but I can’t fathom how he’d play as integral a role in this as he does in the feature film. But, again, this show has already taken me by great surprise so I have doubts that I will soon be stumped again.

–The car crash sequence is a good almost-recreation, but if I’m going to pick one, it’s the movie all the way. Not only is it preceded by the most terrifying highway lines in all of cinema, but it really meant something in the film, as innocent passers-by are gunned down in the name of the covering of asses, whereas here it most just sets up a naked fat guy that I trust won’t end up being too integral to the events to follow. It’s a good nod to the film that doesn’t spend too much time on it and is used to show us who is the Margie as the show begins, but ultimately comes up a little empty.

–Having only seen the episode once, there was but one clever Coen Brothers reference that I saw sprinkled in here, although I’m sure there are more. But how could you pass up the opportunity to have Minnesota Martin Freeman walk past a White Russian sign? It was clever, without being too overt about it. At least we didn’t find George Clooney’s Burn After Reading dildo machine in the basement or something.

 

I know that I’m looking forward to the episodes to come. Are you? Is there something from the movie you’d like to see on the show? Leave a comment below.

Be sure to check back week to week for further reviews of Fargo, as well as our regular coverage of Game of Thrones.

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on ““Here We Go Again, Don’tcha Know?” FARGO Episode 1 Review- ‘The Crocodile’s Dilemma’

  1. Pingback: “Treading Frozen Water,” FARGO Episode 2 Review- ‘The Rooster Prince’ | Chekhov's Gunman

  2. Pingback: “Were the Spiders Really Necessary?” FARGO Episode 3- ‘The Muddy Road’ | Chekhov's Gunman

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