Minnesota Nice: “Fargo” Returns Us to Hostile Northern Climates

“Oh now, you gotta see Duluth,” exclaimed my mother last summer. Ever since she moved to Minnesota she has not only developed a high-Midwestern accent, but now adores all things frigid and bleak. Duluth, you see, is actually a barren port town on the shores of Lake Superior (“The big lake they call Gitche Gumee,” doncha know) with ferry rides for entertainment. Not that I was complaining; I was with my mom, and all I had to do was feign my best Gordon Lightfoot impression every five minutes to keep us both in stitches. But there is something magical about Minnesota — it looks like a diorama in a natural history museum, with sweet little smoky chimneys and kids sledding down hills in giant, bright red winter hats and snow boots. What a perfect place for murder.

“I'm really enjoying Fargo,” said my mom in a recent phone call, referring to the new show on FX. She does enjoy a good, grisly murder. “Oh yah,” she continued. “Billy Bob Thornton is a wonderful creep.”

I was dubious about this show before I watched it. It seemed like a pretty blatant attempt to rip off the dark humor of the Coen Brothers in an attempt to steal the Breaking Bad audience that is, understandably, feeling a bit out of sorts since their beloved show died. There is nothing worse than trying to be the next Raising Arizona and falling flat. But if you don't get sucked into this show after the first five minutes, gentle reader, there is no hope for you.

With Fargo (Tuesdays on FX Network), imagine, if you will, a show that seems inspired by Twin Peaks, Reservoir Dogs, No Country For Old Men, and, of course, the 1996 film version of Fargo. Throw in Bob Odenkirk, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and Keith Carradine. Then let the Coen Brothers executive-produce it. “We've got a hit I tell you Morty, a hit!”

The Coen aesthetic seems a bit quaint now, sort of like watching This Is Spinal Tap for the first time and finding it a bit derivative, unaware of course that the opposite is true: Everything funny that came after it was derived from its original groundbreaking comedy.

When a bully appears in the first episode of Fargo, a Biff Tannen type with Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum sons, it seems to have been pulled directly from the mid-'90s subtle comedy aesthetic that the directors championed. Once I got over this admittedly snooty quibble, however, I dived in happily.

Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock) plays milquetoast insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, who gets caught up with the artfully sadistic Lorne Malvo (Thornton), a killing machine forged from the mold of No Country's Anton Chigurh. Several other plots begin weaving together, with assassins named Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg) and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) showing up for good measure. The two communicate with one another through their own made-up sign language, a peculiarity that smacked of Twin Peaks. Throw in the gorgeously eerie cinema-scapes of sleepy Midwestern towns and you can almost hear the Angelo Badalamenti.

The first episode is a Coen Brothers take on Strangers on a Train, with Nygaard being pummeled by the aforementioned bully, Sam Hess, who used to torment him in grade school. He winds up in the emergency room next to Malvo, and in the course of conversation muses aloud about what a world without Hess would be like, unaware perhaps that the man he is sitting next to will take the idea and run with it. Then two more murders occur for good measure to really get the plot rolling.

Sadly, the series will reportedly only have a 10-episode run, making it basically a very long movie. Thornton told The Hollywood Reporter that he thinks short-run TV shows are actually a promising trend. Firstly, projects that can't get the green light in the film world might be able to see the light of day on the small screen. Also, big-name actors might be more willing to do TV if they understand that the time obligations they have to put in will be limited. Well, that's all well and good for the production biz, but what about us hungry viewers?

It seems Fargo has even more in common with Twin Peaks than I thought: a limited run that will set it up for cult status. I guess that's better than nothing.

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