By Benjamin Lucas
It’s no secret that walking into a movie theater will likely end with you watching something you’ve seen before in some form, whether it’s based off an old television show or adapted from a book. With a smaller time frame to communicate a story, the material is generally what suffers, which can be either followed faithfully, albeit with a few plot elements trimmed out, or twisted and repurposed into something new entirely.
Television, however, does not have this problem — in fact, in many cases you’d have to add material to make the 12-episode order. “Game of Thrones” and “Hannibal” take this format and use it to traverse entire series of books, sometimes before they’re finished being written. Now that we’ve embraced television as a powerful storytelling medium, there is further opportunity to add rich detail to a previously established world, which makes it all the more perplexing that a Coen Brothers film from 1995 has been turned into a 10-episode miniseries.
1996’s Fargo was an offbeat, darkly comic crime film about a buffoonish car salesman who pays a group of thugs to kidnap his wife so he can scam his father-in-law out of the ransom money. The real star of the film was its laid-back Midwest backdrop and the use of its quirky speech patterns. The stark contrast of the Coens’ brand of sudden, brutal violence against the local Midwesternisms provided much of its comedic edge, but it also took on broader themes of lower-middle class masculinity.
FX brings those elements to play here in their new series, but very little of the film’s central caper remains intact. The first episode alone already accounts for two-thirds the length of its source film, and it wastes no time establishing how very different of a story it is indeed. Martin Freeman, who plays William H. Macy’s role, is now a life insurance salesman, and a painfully awkward one (in one of his first scenes he explains to a pregnant couple how suddenly one can die without a proper policy). The one thing his cohorts have in common is they all seem to have more successful lives than he does, starting with Freeman’s grown-up high school tormentor. His feelings of inadequacy are frequently pointed out, and perhaps partially influenced, by his obnoxious wife.
Meanwhile, Billy Bob Thorton settles into Peter Stormare’s role as the stoic side of the original’s criminal duo with calculated intensity. The pilot’s most compelling scenes are between Freeman and Thorton, where Thorton coaxes the spineless salesman to reach out and snatch what is rightfully his and, more importantly, to leave behind his current second-fiddle standing. It’s here where the “Breaking Bad” influence starts to creep in beyond the theme of high-stakes suburban crime, where the oafish Freeman decides to man up and pursue a more fulfilling, and consequently bloodier, life.
The difference here is the spontaneity — during a particularly heated argument with his wife, Freeman makes his big stand by lethally clobbering her in the head with a mallet. Up until this point, FX’s “
” has only given us a handful of minor departures and maybe a new face or two, but nothing as cataclysmic as the death of a major character.
It becomes clear in this sequence why anyone would even want to adapt Fargo in the first place. The Coens’ lived-in Minnesota setting makes for an entertaining slice of culture, and perhaps someone at FX liked it enough to plug in their own small-time crime story. This wasn’t done outside of the Coens’ influence, to give their executive producer credit, nor does it do much in the name of distinguishing itself. The odd mannerisms of the Coens’ Fargo are employed constantly, regardless of whether it serves the scene or the characters, while the plot doesn’t come off as a product of natural progression, but rather a desire to break free.
Lester Nygaard murdering his wife isn’t any more far-fetched than Walter White speeding off in an RV meth lab, but at least one of those shows offered a baseline for its protagonist, one that evolved and shifted throughout its run.
FX’s “Fargo” comes off like it’s trying so, so hard to avoid retreading the Coens’ twisty kidnapping story, but runs into a narrative brick wall trying to justify why Nygaard would be pushed from dorky everyman to cold-blooded killer over the course of several days. It’s got some visual substance, and Billy Bob Thorton’s presence is never anything less than menacing, but the whole project is hard to salvage when the film’s best qualities are consistently the series’ worst.