Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Fargo: Madcap Minnesotan Mystery

If you enjoy the work of the Coen brothers in general and their 1996 movie Fargo in particular, then Fargo the TV series is just what you're looking for. But even if you have no idea what I'm talking about, you should give this show a shot. Because it is a welcome entry into the prestige cable "limited series" lineup.

Fargo tells the "true" story of a series of murders that shook up a sleepy Minnesotan town. To give away the nature of those murders and the perpetrators would ruin your enjoyment of the pilot, which just goes to show you how crammed this show is from the get-go. Suffice to say, there are good guys and bad guys, murder and mayhem, and with four episodes down, things are unraveling delightfully.

The central characters are insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (played by the ubiquitous and fantastic Martin Freeman, whose Minnesotan accent gets better as the show progresses, I promise), menacing hit man Lorne Malvo (played by Billy Bob Thornton in a haircut reminiscent of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men), intrepid and intelligent police officer Molly Solverson (played by the non-ubiquitous but sure to become superstar Allison Tolman), and the hapless but dependable officer Gus Grimly (played by the always engaging Colin Hanks). There are several characters on the periphery, who may or may not come into focus as this story winds its way to a close, but these four actors are at the center of this twisted tale and they are all hitting it out of the park.

In recent years, critically acclaimed cable dramas have mostly featured antihero male protagonists who are doing the wrong thing for perceived right reasons. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter: these are all stories of men who do heinous things yet manage to keep the audience rooting for them in some sick fashion. Those shows are fantastic, but it is refreshing that Fargo's creator and sole writer, Noah Hawley, has realized that what cable drama could really use is a great female heroine. Deputy Molly Solverson is the best new female character on television and Allison Tolman imbues her with goodness, intelligence, and daring. This is a woman who is determined to solve this tricky case, despite the various obstacles thrown in her way by a decidedly sexist boss. She is plucky and smart, and I can't wait to see her solve this case and reap her just rewards.

Fargo is also appealing because of its tone. It's a dark comedy in the best Coen brothers tradition, and despite the shocking events that take place, it never ceases to be funny or descend into moments of lighthearted absurdity. Every hour of this show features strong performances, intriguing plot twists, cinematic cinematography, witty dialogue, and spellbinding storytelling. And the promise of a limited 10-episode run means that it can't overextend itself. The most worthy comparison for this show might be HBO's True Detective, which was also a limited series about solving a series of murders. But while that show chose to meander into meaningless philosophical sidebars and glorify the flawed male protagonists at its center, Fargo is choosing to celebrate a central female character who knows how to do her job and is solving an intricate case with actual clues and solid police work. This show has great characters, but it's also putting the story first, and as a result, it is bringing must-see television to Tuesday night.

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