More and more major film stars are leaving the big screen for television. In what was once considered a medium for lesser actors, cable television channels and Netflix have pushed the boundaries, moving episodic television beyond the four-camera situation comedy or prime-time soap opera into an art form that might in some cases approach literary significance.
Shows like “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective” contain moments comparable to anything found in Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, and television has become a destination for viewers that want to be challenged and prefer critical thinking and criticism in their entertainment. Of course, the overwhelming popularity of reality television continues to lend credence to the “boob tube” nomenclature, but sophisticated programming is becoming more prevalent.
Hollywood talent has taken notice. This month, FX debuted “Fargo,” a new show inspired by the Joel and Ethan Coen film of the same name, and starring none other than Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman. Freeman, of course, is no stranger to the small screen, with starring roles in the British version of “The Office” and more recently as John Watson in the excellent BBC show “Sherlock.” But Thornton has been seen sparingly on television since the 1992 John Ritter sitcom “Hearts Afire”. It likely takes something significant to pique his interest. Three episodes into the season, “Fargo” has shown why it was able to pull such talent to the project.
Most television adaptations of movies are done to salvage a good idea from poor execution. 1992’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” wasn’t especially successful—until it was made into the staple monster-of-the-week series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar in 1997. The idea behind it was solid, but the movie was lackluster. It took weekly stories to bring that world to life.
“Fargo” is different. The Coen Brothers are masters of their craft and “Fargo” is arguably their best film—it is highly effective and visual, replete with a compelling and darkly comedic story and an Academy Award-winning performance by Frances McDormand. Joel and Ethan Coen are executive producers on “Fargo” the television show, but they ostensibly have little to do with the running of it (they penned two of the 10 episodes, directing none of them). The film and television show are thematic and stylistic cousins, but very different products. The series runs the risk of merely aping the Coen Brothers. This is a major trap the show must avoid in order to be successful—it takes a large amount of hubris to pull something like this off.
Thus far, the show has managed to avoid being a cheap copy. It maintains the dark comedy, the stark Minnesota landscapes, and the friendly accents, while telling a new story that has nothing to do with Marge Gunderson and Jerry Lundegaard. It retains the lie that the events are based a true story, hoping to encourage viewers to suspend their disbelief and accept the absurdity of the situations.
There are new elements here, with characters like Malvo (Thornton), the Mephistopheles of the series, who engineers evil for evil’s sake. The second episode features a pair of organized crime assassins (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard) who speak exclusively to each other in sign language—but one of them might not be translating the signs accurately. Then we have Lester Nygaard (Freeman), a weak everyman with a new host of problems and an amusing Midwestern friendliness at odds with the brutality residing within him. The performances so far have been exceptional. “Fargo” is simply good television.
However, it remains to be seen whether or not the show will focus too much on the darker aspects of humanity. “Fargo” the film certainly shows the evil of men’s hearts, but balances it with the unrelenting goodness found there as well. Allison Tolman plays Molly Solverson, the “Marge Gunderson” of the show, but as of yet she hasn’t yet become the moral center. But with seven episodes remaining, “Fargo” has plenty of time to develop her character.
“Fargo” the television series is unlikely to be an improvement over the film. There is too much perfection in the original to overcome. Instead, the series should be seen as a companion, a continuation of a good idea and an exploration of human motivations. This is a new story in a world that has more ground to explore. I can certainly handle ten weeks of Coen-inspired television.