Each episode of Fargo starts with a message: "This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred. "
The playful disclaimer is the perfect way to open FX's newest series, where nothing is ever quite as it seems.
Yes, the drama premiering this week is an adaptation of the 1996 Coen brothers movie of the same name. But despite the Coens' involvement (they're executive producers) and that "true story" label inspired by the movie, this isn't just a Fargo the Movie reboot. It does expertly re-create the movie's setting and tone, that constant balancing act between foreboding dread and Minnesota friendliness. But it builds on that with surprising writing, richly drawn original characters and some dynamite acting.
The show has a sprawling cast, with lots of familiar faces (Oliver Platt, Colin Hanks) peppered among some lesser known ones (appealing newcomer Allison Tolman as the Frances McDormand-type female cop).
But it's Lester Nygaard who's the heart and soul of Fargo. As played by British actor Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock), Lester is an earnest insurance salesman so pathetic his high school bully still beats him up, a sap of a man whose wife tells him she wishes she'd married his more successful brother instead. The poor guy can't even fix his own washing machine.
Freeman is perfectly cast, playing Lester as a nebbish just seconds away from letting a lifetime of frustrations bubble over his polite demeanor. The character is easy to underestimate, and Freeman is so often cast as a timid straight man that you might underestimate him, too. You shouldn't. Even when he's not saying a word in his character's heavy Minnesota accent, Freeman conveys Lester's sinister potential.
That darkness is unleashed after a chance meeting with Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a mysterious drifter whose gig as a gun-for-hire/general prankster brings him to Bemidji, Minn., where most of the show's action takes place, and surrounding towns like Duluth and Fargo, N.D. Lorne shakes up Lester's world immediately. "Your problem is, you've spent your whole life thinking there are rules," Lorne tells him. "There aren't."
Again, the casting is spot-on. Saddled with an unfortunate haircut that screams unstable, Thornton is fascinating in the role, all quiet menace and unsettling stares as a creep with a sense of humor. The guy just seems to enjoy screwing with people's lives, hurling white lies and deadly blows with the same nonchalance. What's a little revenge killing between friends?
It's not worth spoiling just how Lester and Lorne become permanently intertwined, but it kick starts the plot of the first four episodes into a compelling true crime thriller.
Out of this tense yarn writer and producer Noah Hawley spins lots of dark humor and intrigue, as well as lots of murder and mayhem. The icy exteriors of the show's Minnesota landscape serve as a perfect backdrop for bright splashes of red blood. The first episode, "The Crocodile's Dilemma," contains a handful of deaths, including one that's awesomely memorable for the way it upends typical prestige-television tropes.
(Like McDormand in the movie, this Fargo balances out the evil with Tolman's female cop, a do-gooder who drinks away her troubles with milkshakes from her Dad's diner.)
Throw in quirky visual touches from director Adam Bernstein, Hawley's slow-burn script, and a supporting cast that includes small but memorable turns from Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad), Glenn Howerton (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and Comedy Central duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and this Fargo is a strong addition to FX's expanding slate of superb dramas.
One of the show's biggest advantages is that it's a 10-episode limited series, meaning the show will likely reboot next season with a new story and even new characters (and actors). The one-and-done format allows a danger in the storytelling that long-running shows simply can't play with. Tony Soprano wasn't going to be killed off The Sopranos in Season 1. Here, with no guarantee that the actors will be back for another season, anyone is fair game.
Tuesday's episode alone is full of surprising turns and at least one big shocker. It's one of those "Did that really just happen?" moments that had me wondering when someone was going to wake up from a dream.
But don't worry — nothing in Fargo is that predictable.
Michelle Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @mstark17 on Twitter.