Season 1, Episode 1
“The Crocodile’s Dilemma”
I’m not sure why Noah Hawley and Adam Bernstein decided to remake the Coen Brothers film Fargo into a television series. It seems a thankless task. I came in very pessimistic. The pilot opens with a familiar shot of a car speeding on the freeway at midnight with the headlights just barely giving our eyes a chance to register whats on the road ahead. It’s like Fargo. Except you’re seeing it reshot by someone else. It’s TV so they can’t hold the shot as long as Roger Deakins does. It doesn’t have the grinding, unsettling score from Carter Burwell. It’s like the original Fargo but not as good. They keep the opening title about being based a true story.
After the opening shot, the pilot wisely veers away from being slavishly faithful to recreating the original. Our beloved idiot Jerry Lundegaard has been replaced by Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). Instead of car sales, Nygaard deals in insurance. He has a wife Pearl who constantly berates him and compares him unfavourably to Lester’s younger and more successful brother Chaz. For all intents and purposes, Nygaard is much the same as Jerry was though. A meek, ordinary jobsworth who is frustrated, greedy and gets in over his head.
The original Fargo is a film that is filled with sad, greedy and lonely people. The shining light amongst the darkness is Officer Marge Gundersson. She is smart, cheerful and intelligent. Marge has a simple, loving husband Norm and a baby on the way. It is her persistence and tenacity that eventually solves the case and brings the criminals to justice. Disappointingly, the pilot gets rid of Marge’s character and replaces her with Sheriff Vern, who has a pregnant wife, and his understudy Molly. In the bloody aftermath of the shootout in Lester’s home, I guess we’re left with Molly to fill Marge’s role. I’m not familiar with Alison Tolman but she did not leave much of an impression on me in this episode. She’s got her work cut out for her filling Frances McDormand’s boots thats for sure.
The highlight of the Fargo pilot, and perhaps the biggest reason to think that this remake could be anything other than a pale imitation of what came before it is Billy Bob Thornton who plays the deliciously diabolical and meddlesome Malvo. Malvo isn’t really a cipher for Steve Buscemi’s Carl. He is something altogether different. He reminds me of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, with his weird haircut and strange line of questioning, constantly toying with everyone he meets, as if deciding whether to kill them on the spot or not.
It is Malvo’s impromptu conversation with Lester in a hospital and his subsequent decision to murder a childhood bully who re-enters Lester’s life that triggers the chain of events that make Fargo so captivating by the end of the pilot. Billy Bob Thornton plays Malvo as the devil on your shoulder, bringing out the worst in people and then sitting back quietly as he watches the chaos he created unfold.
Fargo is set to run for ten episodes as a stand alone season. If it gets picked up for a second season, there would be a whole new cast of characters. This can only be a good thing. I don’t know why anyone would want to remake Fargo but by the end of the pilot, I was a believer. This could work. Even if all else fails, watching Billy Bob Thornton fuck with people’s minds for a couple of months should be a barrel of laughs.