Thursday, January 08, 2015

Fargo, season 1 / **** (TV-MA)

Lorne Malvo: Billy Bob Thornton
Molly Solverson: Allison Tolman
Lester Nygaard: Martin Freeman
Gus Grimly: Colin Hanks
Bill Oswalt: Bob Odenkirk
Lou Solverson: Keith Carradine
Greta Grimly: Joey King
Mr. Wrench: Russell Harvard
Mr. Numbers: Adam Goldberg
Chaz Nygaard: Joshua Close
Stavros Milos: Oliver Platt

MGM Television and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment present a television series developed and written by Noah Hawley. Directed by Randall Einhorn, Adam Bernstein, Colin Bucksey, Matt Shakman, and Scott Winant. 10 episodes, 2 90-min., 8 60-min. Rated TV-MA (for occasional mild to moderate sexual references throughout, violence & gore, mild language, drinking and some frightening/intense sequences).

We are now deep in the Television Renaissance. Who could’ve predicted the Golden Age of TV would bring zombies to the forefront? Perhaps if anyone could’ve, they’d have also predicted that one of the greatest independent films of the 90’s would find its revival here and be so successful in retaining the original’s spirit, while expanding it’s ideas into a longer running format. “Fargo” is easily the best new television series of 2014.

I suppose one of the keys to its success at retaining the feel of the cinematic brilliance of Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark comedy is the fact that it employs the talents of Billy Bob Thornton as the driving force of snide darkness within it. Thornton portrays what cannot be described as human, but a killer whose only description is malevolence. It’s no mistake that his name is Malvo. In fact, it’s hard to find any mistake in this show’s depraved take on humanity.

And yet like the Coens’ movie, a strong, thoughtful, just and uncannily kind woman anchors the entire enterprise. Allison Tolman is the breakout star of the year as Sergeant Molly Solverson, perhaps the only police officer with a brain in the entire Bemidji, Minnesota police department, after Sherriff Thurman. Tolman doesn’t have the exact same qualities of Sherriff Marge Gunderson in the original film. She’s a little more willing to trail off when her male compatriots brush her aside. She’s not even pregnant—at least until the final three episodes. But she’s just as smart and just as determined to find her man, or men as it were.

The plot centers on Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman (“Sherlock”, “The Hobbit”), who once again proves the versatility of his sheepishness. Nygaard is the role you might compare to William H. Macy’s from the original movie, but Nygaard has a knack for turning his own incompetence in his favor, which is a direct departure from Macy’s Jerry Lundergaard. Lester is more than a push over. He’s a welcome mat that is stepped on, wiped raw with cow dung and thrown in the garbage without a thought for his significance to the household. He sells insurance—not well by appearances—is picked on by a high school bully some 25 years after the fact, and nagged on and degraded by his wife with incessant fury. He’s a pile of clay waiting to be molded by the time he meets Malvo in a hospital emergency room, who proceeds to strike up what Lester thinks is an innocent “what if” conversation.

That sets the ball rolling on a series of bloody murders so twisted and convoluted that only Molly has an inkling of just how big a picture really exists behind them. Not that anyone will listen to her after the Sherriff becomes one of the first victims. Imbeciles who can’t see their way past the simplest theories, no matter how implausible, surround her. Bob Odenkirk plays the interim Sherriff, who has the most unfortunate trait for law enforcement of not being able to stand the sight of blood, or even the thought of it. I’m very much enjoying this bounty of roles lately for Odenkirk, who really gets to stretch his legs past just the comic relief with this role.

Like the original, the story spans across a great distance, to Duluth, Las Vegas, Kansas City, and even a brief stint in the titular city. It takes the malicious Malvo to the throne of a grocery king with a very minute tie to the original movie’s tale, all the while a couple of mob enforcers are on his trail. Thornton’s Malvo, however, is something beyond any of the amateur elements that populate the cold winter landscape of the Fargo universe. He’s more like George Clooney’s professional in the movie “The American”. This guy is capable of anything. He’s a cool cat who doesn’t make mistakes; he creates them. He’s something none of these yokels are prepared for, including Molly. 

But it’s Molly who keeps this boat afloat, with her affability and unflappability. She’s not only the anchor of intelligence, but also that of positivity and purity. She even falls for one of the yokels who gets himself caught up in Malvo’s web. Colin Hanks plays Gus Grimly, a single dad who stumbled unwittingly into law enforcement, and the only other person who believes Molly’s theories because he failed to arrest Malvo on a cold evening when he had a bad feeling about the guy. The two are the exact type of oddball couple that should be born of the Coens’ strange and wonderful world of murder and gosh golly accents.

Here are the first seven minutes of the series. 

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