Photo: Chris Large / FX

Will TV's Fargo Be A 'You Betcha' Or An 'Oh Geez'?

Sarah and Tara have hopes, and reservations, after the pilot.

Our Players

Hello, I'm West Coast Editor Tara Ariano.
Hello, I'm East Coast Editor Sarah D. Bunting.

The Scene

What's most risky about FX's new TV adaptation of Fargo is how much of an adaptation it's...not. Like, I knew going in that it's set in the world of the movie without actually featuring any of the same characters, but I guess I still expected to see more direct tie-ins than were there (which is none). And yet, as our esteemed colleague Dave put it, even though it's an all-new story, the ghost of the movie still stalks the pilot. I guess all this is by way of saying that watching this episode felt very weird to me!
There is an Uncanny Valley-ness to the proceedings, I agree. The show improves on certain aspects of the movie -- the characterization of northern Minnesotans isn't as broadly tacky and guileless -- but then at the same time it's inferior to its cinematic parent in terms of the pacing and the heavy-handedness. Like, I get that we're supposed to root for Lester Nygaard to kill his wife, but if you make her this cartoonish of a bitch and him this sad of a sack, it's hard to believe they stayed married as long as they did in the first place when they don't (apparently) have kids.
Also that she starts out seeming pretty nice -- or she did to me, at least. When Lester's brother (or brother-in-law, whichever) says he's heard from his wife that Pearl has been shit-talking Lester, it came as kind of a surprise. Her big confrontation scene at the end felt like it was barely set up, to me.
I thought we'd gotten some lead-up to that; that IS Lester's brother, and that Pearl is that invested in what the other Nygaards get up to and the promotion Nygaard The Younger just got "after only a year," that she's closer to Lester's brother's family than Lester apparently is, suggested that she's been up his ass about his mediocrity for some time. So, credit for laying the groundwork, but why wouldn't she just leave? Ditto the Sam Hess confrontation. Went on for a week, didn't ring true.
Maybe I just thought she was nice because she made him a grilled cheese. But yeah, I think that might be my big problem with most of the pilot: in Fargo the movie, Jerry's ill-starred plan for fake-kidnapping his wife is poorly thought out, but at least we understand that he needs money and has tried other ways -- or maybe just the one other way -- to get it. Lester is, in at least the murder he actually commits himself, just committing a crime of passion, which seems like a more difficult premise on which I assume the whole season will rest. But then...Lorne.
Ohhhhh yes: Lorne. How do you feel about Lorne? I seem to recall that you are less kindly disposed to Billy Bob Thornton than I.
I'm fine with him as an actor. But through most of the pilot I couldn't figure out why he bothered to kill Sam Hess for a dude he just met by chance. My thought was that he would go back to Lester later and demand a retroactive payment, which would have been fine, and could still happen. But! When we get to the motel scene where he plants the idea for the dogsbody to pee in the manager's gas tank and then rats him out just to fuck with both of them, I finally got it. He's Chaotic Evil! MUCH more interesting.
I also enjoy Thornton, and his performance is making Lorne and Lorne's dialogue seem better than it is; Lorne's simple, malice-tinged satisfaction in telling the guy mopping the floor at the Mailboxes Etc.-type place that he missed a spot cracked me up. But a lot of his pronunciamentos about men being apes and whatnot...feh. It's awfully pleased with itself given that people don't talk like that. I had this problem with The Americans too -- stop elbowing me in the ribs to make sure I get What You're Doing.
I hear you -- he's a bit inside-out Rust Cohle (with...worse abs). But the idea of a character who's this unpredictable is compelling to me. If the whole season will be just him going from town to town ruining lives at random like a reverse Touched By An Angel, I'm into it.
Oh, I'd watch the shit out of that. Alas, it's much more likely to be about Lester's journey to his own dark side, and as much as I love Martin Freeman and think he also is elevating the material to his own level, we just got done watching this via one Walter White, and the premise of Breaking Bad was a little fresher and less cheap-shotty than this is. ...I'm making it sound like I loathed it; I didn't! It's an enjoyable enough sit. I just don't know if I can care long-term about, say, Sheriff Colin Hanks's agonizing decision not to let Lorne kill him. And I'm a little mad the other sheriff got dead. I really liked that actor. I'm really hoping that his wife and Officer Solverson (GEDDIT?) team up to fight crime.
Good old Shawn Doyle. Don't worry, he'll be back on the next American show that films in Canada. BUT ANYWAY: I think you're probably right about Lester, and I'm concerned that the show is going to try to make his situation a lot funnier (or "funnier") than Jerry's was in the movie. To me, Fargo the movie had darkly comic moments but wasn't exactly a dark comedy, if that makes sense: none of the people who get killed in that, other than by Marge, are ever made to seem like they are at all asking for it, you know? There's a hint of this calibration toward the end of the pilot here, as Solverson has to come tell Vern's widow, Ida, that he's dead, and Ida's silent reaction is the only moment in the pilot that engaged me emotionally and made a character seem like a person. Whereas in the movie, even when Jean is running around a yard with a bag over her head, it's ridiculous-looking, but I feel her fear and horror. I think the show needs more of that and less of making these people seem cartoony because their accents are funny.
There's also some promise in the tension between Solverson and Bill Oswalt; Odenkirk is great as that guy who's content not to dig or push too hard, but Solverson thinks there's more too it and wants to do her late boss's memory justice by figuring out what's really going on. I also loved that moment you mentioned, when Solverson just stood there with the paint cans and there was no dialogue. If the show can learn to take one thing off, it would be great...but I've watched a bit ahead, and the jury's still out on that.
Well, it's intriguing enough that I'll keep watching for now. I'm hoping that it shook off most of its Fargo yips (spouse throwing arm over cop when cop gets a middle-of-the-night call; beaten-down salesman in dumb parka; cop puking at crime scene; etc.) and can let itself be its own thing, at least.
The hot-dish reference is also out of the way, so I will cautiously join your optimism.
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