TV review: ‘Fargo’ takes its source material in a promising new direction

FX’s new series Fargo is based on the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning 1997 film.

Three and a half stars

Fargo Tuesdays, 10 p.m., FX.

In 1997, CBS produced a pilot for a series based on Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning movie Fargo, featuring Edie Falco in the role of small-town police chief Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand in the movie. That direct adaptation never made it to series, and FX’s new miniseries version of Fargo wisely forgoes casting new actors as the same iconic characters, instead telling a new darkly comic crime story set in the dead of winter in Minnesota.

Fargo’s ties to its source material (especially an explicit connection in the fourth episode) actually account for the show’s most awkward moments, and it does better the further it distances itself from the Coens’ work. Although none of the movie’s characters show up here, the broad strokes of the story in the first episode are similar, and there are analogous characters for most of the movie’s main players. The story starts with put-upon insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a take on William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, and it focuses much of its attention on small-town police deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), a younger, less pregnant version of Marge Gunderson. Each episode even opens with the fake “true story” disclaimer from the movie (although with the date amended to 2006).

All of those similarities distract from the strengths of the show itself, which is more like FX’s Justified (another crime series with a specific regional flavor and a dark sense of humor) than a Coen brothers production. Billy Bob Thornton turns out to be the plot’s central figure, as a character with no analog in the movie, a sort of giddily sociopathic villain reminiscent of another Coens character, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men.

Thornton and Freeman may be bigger names, but newcomer Tolman is the real heart of the show, giving a warm, likable performance as a deceptively capable detective who is consistently undervalued both as a police officer and as a person. A show about Deputy Solverson would be worth watching even without ties to a beloved movie; if those ties bring audiences to Fargo, then they’ve done their job.

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