Sunday, 5 July 2015

TV Show Review: Fargo Season 1 (2014) [Spoilers]

© FX | Source: CurrentDigitalMag

USA; 10 episodes; crime, drama
Channel: FX
Creator: Noah Hawley
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Martin Freeman, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Goldberg, Russell Harvard, Oliver Platt, Glenn Howerton, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Joey King, Keith Carradine, Kate Walsh, Rachel Blanchard, Joshua Close, Julie Ann Emery, Susan Park, Kelly Holden Bashar 
“Did you know the human eye can see more shades of green than any other colour? When you figure out the answer to my question, then you’ll have the answer to yours.”  – Lorne Malvo

Emmys, Golden Globes, critical acclaim and universal praise – Fargo's got it all. The first season of the FX series seems to have convinced everybody and their grandmother. Something underneath the frosty, greyish, snow-laden Minnesotan setting has warmed the hearts of many viewers. The sketchy, philosophical dialogues and riddles seem to have everybody in a guessing mood and Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of a devilish hired gun the world in awe. As a consequence, I was basically ready to be stunned by Fargo – blown away, thoroughly entertained, left with an exhilarant feeling like I'd just won the Salesman of the Year award. All I felt, however, was relief. Relief that, after ten episodes of Fargo, I could finally move on and dedicate my time to something worthwhile. Binge-watching Secret Diary of a Call Girl, for example. And, yes, I really just said that.

But back to Fargo. The pilot with the sounding name "The Crocodile's Dilemma" starts off quite nicely. As the title suggests, the show already sticks deep in philosophical subtext, just to show that it knows its paradoxes, I guess. But, well, whatever. Here's what's going on: Lester Nygaard (Michael Freeman) is a mousy and unsuccessful insurance salesman with a bossy and constantly complaining wife (Kelly Holden Bashar). After being bullied and punched in the nose by an old acquaintance, Lester meets a crocodile, uh, man named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) at the hospital who offers to kill the bully. Since Lester does neither accept nor deny the offer, Malvo, who happens to be a professional killer, goes on to murder Lester's tantaliser. After the first shock wears off, Lester, in a heated argument with his wife, feels powerful for the very first time and kills her by hitting her on the head with a hammer. This brings in Chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle) and Police Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), and forces Lester to go to considerable length to hide his own crime as well as his connection with Malvo.

© FX | Source: Fargo Wikia

If all this sounds kind of familiar, it's because it is. Fargo is loosely based on the 1996 film of the same title by Joel and Ethan Coen; a 98-minutes feature I hold very dear for its quirkiness and absurdities, its atmospheric setting, exaggerated characters and kick-ass female heroine. Since the TV version features the Coen brothers as producers, I really hoped that the Coen spirit would automatically flow into the project as well.

And, as I said, the very first episode is nice. It manages to capture the hazy, melancholic aesthetics of the source material, with a wintery landscape that is certain to make Jon Snow feel comfortably at home. With Bemidji, Minnesota as a main setting, it also conveys an element of small town flair, similar to the Brainerd-set movie. Additionally, it tries to give some new spins to the original. For example, Lester, reminiscent of William H. Macy's good-for-nothing car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, is endowed with more criminal and deceitful potential than his movie counterpart. I also enjoy how Molly Solverson, the equivalent to Frances McDormand's bad-ass Marge Gunderson, only becomes the main police officer pursuing the Lester case after an unexpected twist of events brings about the death of Chief Thurman. The pilot cleverly plays with the expectations of those who know the film, and this is all fair and well. Nothing groundbreaking or utterly spectacular, but a sweet set-up after all.

And then it all goes downhill from there. While the series is capable of maintaining the arresting optics, it severely lacks in tone. It's way too tame to truly embrace the satirical or absurd greatness of the film, yet it's also too weird to work as a traditional crime story. Scenes like Malvo being offered to buy a pink police scanner are occasionally thrown into the usual murder mayhem. Like show creator Noah Hawley wants to assure his viewership that, yes, we're definitely dealing with a black comedy here. Some might like to scream in my face: "But why does everything have to be labelled appropriately? Can't we appreciate the multidimensional aspects of the show?" No, we cannot. I cannot. Fargo, the series, seems too scared to take its humour all the way, to fully allow for absurdity, to really be wickedly funny amidst all the serious bloodshed. Rather than complex, it feels directionless, tumbling somewhere between quirk and graveness. Just like Lester, it wants to be special, badly, but ultimately fails to withstand its time in the spotlight.

© FX | Source: Optigrab

I also hate how you can literally watch the show run out of steam. A case that Marge Gunderson most definitely would have solved in a 90-minute time span, drags on over ten episodes. And the creators must have known that their story just isn't rich enough to justify ten episodes. Why else plant that five-episode-long side plot surrounding supermarket tycoon Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) into the series, when the whole things has absolutely no connection to the main plot? I mean, five episodes of seeing Milos slowly being driven into madness by Malvo – because the latter felt like it. Some call it character drawing, I call it sloppy character drawing. Seriously, if you need FIVE episodes to merely establish the mean spirit and mischievousness of one of your main characters, you should reconsider your plot outline. And then, to try and appease fans of the film with the fact that the money-filled satchel found by Milos in the episode "Eating the Blame" is the same as the one buried by Steve Buscemi's character in the movie... Come on. One tiny reference can't make up for the irrelevance of a five-episode-lasting side plot. And to waste Oliver Platt on such a storyline. Shame on you, TV Fargo.

But, no, it's not enough to fill time by establishing plots of no importance. In order to stall the investigation on the Lester case further, Hawley and his writing team rely on a bunch of beyond stupid characters. And I mean I-want-to-smash-my-head-on-a-desk-stupid; or should I say, Bob Odenkirk, anyone? In Fargo, the Better Call Saul star takes over the role of police chief after Thurman's death. Since he went to school with Lester, he absolutely cannot imagine that the inconspicuous guy should have anything to do with the murder of his wife. Even though Solverson presents him with more and more evidence demonstrating contradictions in Lester's testimony and, on top of this, his connection with Malvo, the police chief will hear no word of it. Sure. So he keeps on sabotaging Solverson's inquests until my eyes have spun out of their sockets due to all the rolling. Yet again, all this is not enough. Furthermore, two FBI agents, played by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, chat in their car while Malvo walks into a building they're actually surveilling, shoots 22 people dead and leaves again, disguised in a group of bystanders gathered outside. While the murder spree has a nice Frenzy-Hitchcockian feel to it, the incompetence of the two agents overshadows everything.

© FX | Source: MPR News

Characters are a general problem in Fargo. Lester is utterly unlikable, as he should be, considering the things he does throughout the show. Unfortunately, he also isn't all that interesting. Once he's established himself as a spiteful, selfish little man, his act is predictable. Due to the stupidity apparently predominant in the Minnesotan law enforcement, we know that he won't get caught for a long time. Due to William H. Macey's fate in the movie, we know that his demise will certainly occur in the very last episode – and it does. The only fascinating thing left is Freeman's dedicated performance, the highlight of the series as far as acting goes.

Then there's Officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), who serves as Solverson's love interest. I mean, all the people who are aware of the film know we have to get Molly pregnant somehow, don't we? Apart from his relationship with her, Grimly is rather annoying. His desperate effort to be good at his job, the little talks with his teenage daughter Greta (Joey King) – I don't care. For the most part, he really appears like an eventual sperm donor on two legs. With a firearm, unfortunately. In the episode "Buridan's Ass", in a misty pursuit, he mistakenly shoots Molly and has her end up in hospital, further stalling the investigation. Like we don't have enough silly characters boycotting the plot already...

© FX | Source: The Gonzo

Yes, appealing characters are scarce and few in this show. Molly Solverson is probably the one who manages to hold my interest at all. She still might pale in comparison to Marge Gunderson, but her heartfelt, no-bullshit style of going about things strikes a chord. Especially her scenes with her father (Keith Carradine) as well as the ones with Thurman's widow Ida (Julie Ann Emery) are lovely to watch. The fact that, in the finale, Grimly steals her thunder by killing Malvo is a huge disappointment. More shame on you, TV Fargo

Most people agree that Thornton's portrayal of Malvo is the masterpiece of the production. And, again, I don't see the appeal. I think Thornton is a wonderful actor in general and perfectly Coen-savvy, as his stint on their film The Man Who Wasn't There proves. However, in Fargo he seems like a poor copy of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh from another Coen film. He's supposed to be enigmatic and intense, threatening and unpredictable, yet deliciously funny at the same time. In other words, he's supposed to be the personified equivalent to the coin flip scene from No Country for Old Men. While Thornton sports a similarly terrible hair style as Bardem, his performance comes across as so subtle that it is almost ineffective. I don't sense danger and wit from him. I only sense words from a script, told with either a playful smirk or serious countenance. Besides, his character is mostly shaped through action, not through turning emotions or intentions inside out. Malvo slits a throat, so we know he's brutal. Malvo disguises as a Lutheran Minister to set the police on a wrong track, so we know he is a trickster. Malvo tries to drive Milos crazy by bringing Biblical plagues upon him, so we know he likes to play mind games. There's not much else to be had, and the act gets old fairly quickly. And then, after ten episodes of congenial criminal activity without ever getting caught, Malvo is wiped from the surface of the Earth in an anti-climactic showdown. Being shot by dimwit officer Grimly – how could one's final farewell be more irrelevant?   

© FX | Source: Huffington Post

Fargo obviously gave me a hard time. I forced myself through it, always hoping that it would improve at some point and become the show everybody claimed it was. But the truth is, I haven't been as bored and frustrated with TV since making my way through the first season of In Treatment. The plot drags, the philosophical allusions come across as clumsy attempts to bring depth to the storyline, almost all the main characters lack appeal and the stupidity of some of the supporting characters is just too much to bear. What remains is the look of the show, which is truly beautiful and captivating – but it's also a tribute to the look of the original Fargo movie. So, why should I force-feed myself ten hours of subpar storytelling, when I can watch the 98-minute source material featuring intriguing characters, sharp wit, hilarity and a compelling story?

Due to its massive popularity with critics and audiences alike, Fargo will return for a second season in September, starring Patrick Wilson (as a younger version of Molly's father), Ted Danson, Jean Smart and Kirsten Dunst. Just like the second season of True Detective, the whole thing seems like a mere attempt to ride the wave of success a little longer. In contrast to True Detective, Fargo has nothing to lose, though. It can only get better.



  1. Although I hate to see two of my dearest TV shows bashed (devoted In Treatment fan here), I always admire your witty, casual writing style with the occasional intelligent observation :P

    Lorne Malvo is out to get you now anyway :D

    1. Thank you very much, Kenny. I'm glad you enjoyed my review for its writing, if not for its content. I try my best to appear intelligent on occasion. ;)

      As for good ol' Lorne: From what I've seen of him so far, I think I can take him on. I'll just puzzle him with some paradoxes... ;D