Fargo the TV series was what a Coen Brothers movie would be like if the Coen Brothers weren’t actually involved. Series creator Noah Hawley took a certain tone from the movie Fargo, and wasn’t shy about working other Coen angles into the show. But his series wasn’t a sequel to the movie, or a remake, and while it had one (or more?) specific connections to the film, for the most part, it existed in its own space, and you could enjoy it without knowing the movie.
To which one might ask, why bother? Why not just create a world from scratch? I’d say Fargo the movie had room for more than just the central plot and characters that carried it. The TV series played with our expectations, but it always had its own place, one which I found compelling for the duration of its ten-episode run.
I’ve always been on the fence about the Coens, but Fargo is my favorite of their movies, so I welcomed a new look at that environment. Fargo (the series) confounded lots of expectations, not just for fans of the movie. It had bad guys … it had seemingly nice guys who turned bad, which is a fairly common theme in modern TV … but it wasn’t really about the bad guys, it was about the good guys, who weren’t all good, but who operated from a place of decency that separated them from the usual anti-heroes of today. Front and center was Molly Solverson, the closest thing in the series to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. Molly was a perfect example, though, of how the show borrowed from the movie, but made something of its own, for she wasn’t a copy of Marge, she was a character separate from what came before. Molly was played by Allison Tolman, the breakout star of the show … Tolman had done very little acting prior to Fargo, as best as I can tell she did comedy podcasts, but she is as perfect as Molly as McDormand was as Marge. She is the heart of the show, and pretty much the brains of the show, as well.
As is usual for the best TV series these days, there is plenty of fine acting throughout. Billy Bob Thornton had the showiest role as a mysterious hit man, and Martin Freeman got a chance to chew some scenery. That played well against the more deadpan performances of people like Adam Goldberg, or the gentle excellence of Keith Carradine as Molly’s dad (when did he become so incapable of giving a bad performance?).
The resolution of the various narrative threads in the final episode was satisfying enough, although I’m not surprised to read critics who had problems with this or that angle. It wasn’t a perfect ending, and I don’t know that it would hold up to focused examination. But you realized by the end that Fargo fit the cliché of something that was as much about the journey as about the destination. It was quirky, it was funny, its violence often came in through the side door when you were looking at the front … you never knew what was next, and that was part of the fun.
I wouldn’t call it a great series, although Tolman needs to get more attention, she was great all on her own. At times, it was too proud of itself in the manner of a Coen Brothers movie, and outside of Molly and her dad, there weren’t a lot of recognizable humans … they were “humans”, if the scare quotes make sense. But for a project that could have easily stunk, Fargo was a pleasant surprise. Grade for first (only?) season: A-.