[Review] - Fargo, Season 1 Episode 1, "The Crocodile's Dilemma"

Courtesy of MGM Television

The new darling in the cable television family is the anthology series. It makes a certain kind of sense: cable networks, less beholden to advertisers and more willing to take chances on subject matter, attract "bigger" stars to their series, but bigger stars can't often sign up for long term engagements. So now, in the wake of American Horror Story and True Detective, we'll see a sharp increase in the number of these "limited series." The benefit is that the shows get the talent bump from the big names; the names get increased recognition for their skill; and the viewer gets the best of things, with tight focused stories that have a conclusive beginning-middle-end structure, rather than an open ended and drifting directionlessness.

Fargo is... interesting. And ambitious. And very deliberate, though not as patient as it might have you believe. This first episode is practically a movie in and of itself, containing all the highs and lows, the build-ups and climaxes that you'd expect from a feature film. If FX had released this alone, as an original feature, It would be quite entertaining. As the pilot to the series, I was engaged, but left struggling as to how they'll keep this going for a further nine episodes. But it was engaging enough to keep me turning in, to find out what those next nine have in store.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that didn't say yes, but they didn't say no.

When it was announced that Fargo was getting an adaptation, I was apprehensive. While far from my favourite Coen Bros. movie (that title probably goes to either Barton Fink or the Hudsucker Proxy), any time a remake rolls around, the ol' storytelling sphincter clamps up. I relaxed a touch when FX promised that it wouldn't be an adaptation but an original story, drawing on the film for inspiration. Which is pretty much my perfect definition of a remake. If you aren't bringing something original to the tale, what is the point of retelling it, especially if the tale was told so well the first time?  

Fargo found the sweet spot that exists in-between pure imitation and healthy inspiration. The characters, setting, and set-up are familiar enough to be comfortable, but far enough removed that it doesn't invite comparisons at every turn. It looks like the film enough to sell the idea that this takes place in the same universe. That ten years ago (in universe), some bad stuff went down in Brainerd, and now some bad stuff is going down in Bemidji.

The standout of this introductory episode is the unnamed Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton. While it's easy to paint him as a Devil character, I saw him more as a God of Mischief. He rambles into town, bringing chaos and death in his wake. He talks straight and with singular intent, and can't help but corrupt everyone he meets, like rust eating away at the underbelly of a car. He seems to take a certain pleasure out of it, which divorces him from recent villains like Hannibal Lecter, or anti-heroes like Rust Cohle, who banish emotions in favour of cold logic. Malvo seems to be a more human character than them, able to access his emotions. Despite his philosophizing, I doubt he's as strict adherent to it as he seems. More likely, he uses it as a sell, a tool in his belt when spreading his discord. He might believe it, but it seems more likely that he just likes watching people fall apart.

The fun of this first episode is seeing those effect take hold so strongly and suddenly in what appear to be otherwise regular folks. Under the Coenesque stylization, there is a comment about humanity that I'm hoping the series will explore more in depth. How much of a nudge would it take you or me to go from everyday shlub to multiple murderer? How much human film covers over the ape, to use the series' thesis. Do you have to scratch the surface, or dig deep. Because so far, it seems like the surface is only just holding things back. Lester Nygaard (diligently played by Martin Freeman) jumps right on the idea. He's conflicted, but it seems less so about the actual act than about the repercussions. He gets right into the swing of things when he brains his wife; it's only the prospect of getting caught that causes him ire.

The episode was able to take the Coen sensibility, in terms of the direction, the pacing and the dialogue, and replicate it fairly accurately. People talk in that semi-stylised, semi-realistic way. There are accents, and verbal ticks. Folks mishear, and repeat themselves. It has the unfocused precision that makes Coen films so enjoyable. Clearly Noah Hawley has done his research. It also manages to balance the horrible with the ridiculous (the highlight of the episode being when Nygaard ran full-bore into the wall moments after killing his wife). If it weren't for the humour this would be depressing as hell. The humour also keeps you off balance, so when something truly shocking and terrible happens (like the fate of the likable but apathetic Sheriff), you are suddenly jarred into the drama, and the feeling intensifies.

Because the episode spent so much time with Nygaard and Melvo, and Sheriff Thurman, the rest of the cast weren't privy to as much of an introduction as you might like, especially Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson. For the primary protagonist, she wasn't given the attention I thought she deserved. I suspected, as the episode went on, that Thurman would find a messy end, and Solverson would be forced to step up, but I wasn't expecting it in the first episode. By establishing that character only to dispose of them, it set up a nice misdirect, but it stifled the emotional connection the audience had with Solverson. We don't know enough about her to feel for her new dilemma yet.

The same is true of Nygaard, who I expected to snap and take care of the wife, but not by episode's end. The first episode covered a lot of narrative ground, a couple episode's worth anyway. My biggest concern when it ended was, with everything that just happened, what happens next? To the show's credit, what I wanted the most come episode's end was the next episode, so obviously they hooked me. But it's more out of curiosity to see how they will pull the narrative off rather than actual interest in the narrative. As I said before, the story you'd pay to see in a film has already happened. The rest has to prove itself worthy of the price of admission.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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