2014-04-13_0054It’s been 18 years since I saw the Coen Bros. film Fargo, which I recall enjoying immensely at the time.

Over time however, my memory of it has blurred somewhat, with Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and an offbeat tale in an icy backdrop now fading from view. Which is probably just as well, because the new Fargo television series is no strict remake.

Instead it is inspired by the original.

Noah Hawley (Bones) has developed this series with the blessing of Ethan and Joel Coen, who serve as executive producers. This is the second time the small screen has attempted such, with a 1997 pilot starring Edie Falco (directed by Kathy Bates) failing to proceed.

This time they’ve got it right. Developed for FX and set to screen in Australia on SBS ONE, this is a wonderfully-bereft experience, true to the Coen touch of black comedy, quirky characters, occasional violence, rich performances and social comment.

Similar to the feature film, it opens with the disclaimer: “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.” For the record, the film indicated 1987, but both statements are actually pure fiction. The Coens love to hoodwink…

Martin Freeman feigns American accent for insurance salesman Lester Nygaard in the twin if Bemidji, Minnesota. Lester is hen-pecked by his wife, still mocked by his high-school bully, and belittled by his own brother.

“Lester you’re 40 years old. When are you going to get your act together?” his brother asks.

“You’re not a man Lester, You’re not even half a man,” his wife insists.

His attempts to remain optimistic in the face of adversity, teeter precariously between the admirable and the humiliating.

But a chance encounter with a drifter named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) will change all that. Lorne challenges him to man up and take control, indeed he even offers to kill his bully for him, a concept so daring Martin can’t seem to shake off.

As it turns our Lorne has already demonstrated his dark finesse, responsible for a corpse found in the Minnesota woods near an icy road.

Sullen-faced Lorne is a man of few words, and sporting a wig so bad it must be deliberate. But he means business with his softly-spoken threats and malevolence. Thornton plays the role like he has wandered off the set of Breaking Bad, or possibly No Country for Old Men. He’s not exactly Steve Buscemi, but Lorne has a hypnotic way of getting what he wants, bringing an ominous mood to this cornucopia of odd characters.

On the side of the law are Shawn Doyle as Sherriff Vern Thurman and Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson, the well-meaning, small-town policewoman who finds herself at the centre of a widening investigation as bodies begin to pile-up.

“Jeez. You think this could be like an organised crime thing?” she asks.

Also adding to the character actor roll-call are Oliver Platt as supermarket king Stavros Milos, Keith Carradine as Molly’s father and an unrecognisable Kate Walsh as the widow of an early victim. Colin Hanks gets one of the better scenes as a cop who confronts Lorne and faces a life and death decision.

Collectively they make this town far from the centre of normality. Freeman is a stand-out as Lester, despite the most-obvious accent at play.

The white, frozen setting also creates a geographic character all of its own, reminiscent of Northern Exposure or even Lilyhammer. Fans of the film may feel cheated this Fargo follows in the shadow of the original, or that it dwells upon new characters while borrowing its title. Yet it’s hard to ignore that this is standing tall in its own right, very early on.

Look for nods to the film, including the Minnesota-nice dialect and plenty of white-out snow scenery.

Fargo is also crystal clear in its visuals, as brightly-lit scenes belie some of its black comedy. Twisted scenes will even be contrasted by folk music recordings of Full Moon, the 1960s music of Eden Ahbez. It’s not quite Twin Peaks territory, but Fargo may well be a northern neighbour.

As it unravels a mystery separate from its feature film inspiration, Fargo may leave some purists confused, but for me it was a bit like having your cake and eating it too. Now we have two.

This is the best new work of the year since True Detective and I can’t wait to see where it meanders.

Fargo premieres 8:30pm Thursday May 1st on SBS ONE.


  1. Whats this SBS? Actual quality scripted stuff with real actors in a reasonable time frame at a time slot that may be honored? Stop this nonsense at once and put on a singing dancing renovating manufactured derivative product placement at once!! Next thing you know the audience may begin to feel entertained!

  2. I’m a massive, massive fan of the film and this has me excited asI was for Wentworth last year. It looks (and by the sounds of this review surely sounds) like it’s gonna be worth it, yaah!

  3. Secret Squirrel

    Thanks for the review. Loved the original film. I would usually view a do-over of such a classic with some trepidation but what I’ve seen and read so far stand this in good light. It’s perfectly suited to SBS and, despite that hardly anyone will watch, I can be confident that it will remain in the same timeslot for the entirety of its run.

    I’m hoping that Bob Odenkirk has a fairly substantial part to play throughout this.

  4. Excellent review David. Very helpful. I like the idea that they aren’t copying the film. It frankly wasn’t my cup of tea. I do hope SBS will be rewarded with a good audience for this. I don’t know if I’ll personally watch it but that’s because I never can be certain even if I intend to do so. Not anymore.

  5. I saw this was coming to Channel 4 in the UK on Easter Sunday and was wondering if we’d also get it. Nice to see SBS picking up more drama and it being close to fast tracked.

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