There’s an easy way and a hard way to transform a movie into a television show. The former involves rough surgery in which the skeleton of a film is removed, but the heart and brains remain untouched. This sort of show tends to be better in theory than in practice: Just because Charlie Schlatter can smirk like Matthew Broderick, that doesn’t make him Ferris Bueller; just because your cop has an unconventional approach to facial grooming, that doesn’t make him Serpico. To be successful, a TV series needs to be able to stand on its own. The goal shouldn’t be more of the same. The goal should be re-creating whatever it was that felt so fresh in the first place.
And so the best big-to-small screen adaptations aim for something trickier: to transplant the spirit of a work, not just the specifics. Think of the way M*A*S*H domesticated Robert Altman’s electric shambles of a film until it purred with the reliability and comfort of an air conditioner. Or the way Friday Night Lights treated its source material as a suggestion, not a blueprint, and high-stepped all the way to the end zone. These were series that sought greatness first, fidelity second. The showrunners understood the differences between the two media and considered them opportunities. A movie can’t just become a TV show in the same way a soufflé can’t become a stew. Two separate disciplines require two distinct approaches.
Fargo, an ambitious, 10-hour miniseries premiering tonight at 10 ET on FX, attempts something even more delicate: to remind us of a beloved movie while barely glancing in that movie’s direction. Neither a slavish remake nor a wholesale reinvention, this Fargo lifts only intangibles from the original: the frigid weather, the goofy accents, the dogged cops, the bad guys, and the worse luck. As in the film, the action takes place in Minnesota while the criminals are imported from the titular North Dakota town. There are swooping, frigid vistas and a hapless, blond foil with too many vowels in his name. But while the table setting is borrowed, the hot dish itself is new. Atop the permafrost that is the Coen brothers’ 1996 masterpiece, showrunner Noah Hawley — best known1 for his work on Bones and for creating the short-lived ABC series The Unusuals2 — has shoveled a blizzard’s worth of fresh snow: new characters, new high jinks, a newfound sense of menace, and a newly slowed-down pace. It’s more “inspired by” than “derived from”; where most adapters sack and pillage their source material, Hawley merely window-shopped. This is both fascinating and more or less unprecedented. That Hawley was able to pick his way so expertly through the Coens’ fastidiously maintained curiosity shop without breaking anything is remarkable in and of itself — though it starts a little slippery, once it gets going, Fargo is a highly enjoyable disaster luge. That he had to do so at all to get such an engaging crime story on the air is another story entirely.
1. Hawley is also an accomplished novelist. His debut, A Conspiracy of Tall Men, is particularly good.
2. The Unusuals is best known for being the show that had Jeremy Renner under contract and was canceled nine months before he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Before we zero in on the Land of 10,000 Lakes, let’s zoom out for a moment and consider our current terrain: the land of 10,000 channels, all of which are investing heavily in scripted content. Writing about Mad Men last week, I celebrated it as “the last of a vanishing breed of shows.” All the things for which Mad Men has been rightfully celebrated — its writerly indulgences, its shuffling pace, its highly personal storytelling — have become as outdated as a fedora or a three-martini lunch. In a TV landscape increasingly slanted toward fan service and Twitter engagement, new series these days must have hooks bigger than whalers to stand out. And more and more, they are required to point those hooks toward a clean and considered resolution. In the past, good TV shows dropped into our consciousness with a mighty splash before settling, slowly, into our lives. They didn’t so much end as much as they exhaled. Now they must roll like boulders, gathering speed, viewers, and the elusive currency known as buzz as they approach their final impact.
CEO of FX Networks John Landgraf was ahead on this trend early, as he shifted his programming slate away from baggier, more open-ended Golden Age–style shows like The Shield (bad cop vs. Los Angeles) and Damages (bad lawyers vs. each other) toward more concise and high-concept pitches like The Americans (spies in suburbia) and Justified (man with gun go boom).3 In many ways, Landgraf’s most important and influential decision was to green-light American Horror Story, a cuckoo anthology series that isn’t to my taste — I’m not even sure if it has taste — but that smartly services the way people watch TV now: in great, greedy gulps. Even if horror fans don’t appreciate the current season of AHS, all they have to do is wait a year to sample something new. As Landgraf told me in our conversation last year, the once-reviled miniseries is actually TV’s great market inequality: a way to attract flighty creators and fickle fans with the sort of narratives that can’t sustain themselves for multiple seasons but can ignite like wildfire in the short term. TV used to be devoted to the long, saggy middles of stories. Now it’s reoriented itself around the beginnings and the ends.
3. I’m not saying I prefer one style of show over the other — though my feelings about The Americans are well known — I’m just saying Landgraf has done an excellent job of maintaining quality while shifting gears.
With that in mind, two years ago Landgraf and FX made a spirited bid to acquire a crime anthology series to pair with American Horror Story, but lost out to the deep pockets and nudity-friendly policies of HBO. By the time True Detective went supernova this winter, Landgraf had long since adjusted his strategy. Rather than make a TV series that felt like a movie, he’d bring filmmakers to TV, assuming that writers and directors who had lived long enough in the frustrating hothouse of Hollywood would have at least one passion project burning a hole in their hard drive. He was right: Among the high-profile creators in various stages of development with FX are Alexander Payne, Sam Mendes, and Charlie Kaufman. The Coen brothers aren’t directly involved with this new version of Fargo — in fact, they declined to be interviewed about it at all — but their names in the opening credits (as executive producers) and the imprimatur of their talent and taste add weight and significance to a project already burdened with the highest of expectations. With its recognizable name and impressive cast — more on them in a moment — Fargo is more than just a very public bet on FX’s future as one of the big dogs of the small screen. Assuming Landgraf’s right about audience tastes and trends, Fargo is more than a chance to remake a network. It’s an opportunity to remake TV altogether.
The Fargo that begins tonight is set in the remote Minnesota town of Bemidji, three and a half hours north of the movie’s Minneapolis locale. Its story focuses less on a crime gone wrong than on the unhappy overlap between coincidence and disaster. The pilot introduces us to two men: Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a connected drifter with violence in his heart, and Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a henpecked loser with nothing in his future. When the pair find themselves bonding over bruises and grape soda in the town emergency room, the first domino falls in a long and twisty string that will eventually lead to murder, mayhem, and a biblical plague of locusts in a suburban supermarket.
The performances are, across the board, phenomenal. Freeman, so brilliant as a repressed Watson on Sherlock, winds himself even tighter here; every “heck” and “gosh” bubbles out of him like lava. And Thornton is exhilaratingly good. Matthew McConaughey sucked up all the oxygen (and, soon, all the awards) for his recent TV turn, but Billy Bob — last seen on the small screen playing second fiddle to Markie Post — dazzles in a role that requires equal charisma but demands half the quirk. Clad in a long coat and suffering from a hairdo straight out of a Daniel Clowes drawing, his Malvo is a killer cross between an actuary and an assassin. He’s the sort of sociopath who pokes knives into people just to watch them die and ruins lives just to kick around in the rubble left behind. The supporting cast is every bit as strong: As a stubborn police chief, Bob Odenkirk gives the best performance of his life; as a meek single-dad cop, Colin Hanks does the same. Talents as sturdy and diverse as Keith Carradine, Kate Walsh, Adam Goldberg, and even Key & Peele fill out the margins. Oliver Platt bites into the role of a blackmailed grocery magnate like it’s a pork chop; as a doofy personal trainer, It’s Always Sunny’s Glenn Howerton swings like a salty ham.
With the help of veteran TV directors Adam Bernstein (Breaking Bad) and Randall Einhorn (The Office), Hawley gets the broad strokes of the film exactly right: the wood-paneled mundanity of a certain kind of small-town life; the empty-eyed optimism that serves as a flimsy cover for the dark thoughts that bloom when winter lasts half the year. There’s an inspired oddness lurking on the fringes, images that waver between poetry and gibberish: the meathead sons of an overgrown bully beating each other senseless with hockey sticks; a framed painting of an ice scraper; a boxy sedan with a dead deer in the trunk. Thanks to the location filming on the fringes of Calgary, a chill permeates every frame, the sort of cold that seeps into your bones, even on the safe side of the screen.
Still, despite Landgraf’s high hopes, I found the pilot far from revolutionary. In fact, I found it strangely discordant — like the sight of a younger brother struggling mightily to step out from its sibling’s shadow. The hour unfolds so smoothly, one begins to long for turbulence. The thing is, the Coen brothers don’t make movies in broad strokes; nothing about their work is easy. Though their films are often scabrously funny — few more so than Fargo — it’s never quite clear just who or what they’re making fun of, or even if we’re meant to be having fun at all. Everyone remembers the flopsweat of Mike Yanagita and the sight of Steve Buscemi being fed into a wood chipper, but the titanic achievement of the original Fargo was the creation of Marge Gunderson, the heavily pregnant police chief (played by Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand) who soldiered through skyscraping snowdrifts of violence, cruelty, and misogyny in pursuit of truth, justice, and a satisfying lunch. When this Fargo begins, its emphasis on the bad behavior of men — with wives marginalized as either lurid jezebels or nagging victims — seems like a wild, borderline offensive misunderstanding of what made the original film so great. It’s a change that feels about as appealing, and as relevant, as a plate of lutefisk.
But as I watched next week’s episode and then the next, I was surprised to discover that Fargo actually demands and rewards patience, an outmoded concept that miniseries seem expressly designed to circumvent. The series improves exponentially as it advances. In fact, Fargo gets better and better the further it gets from Fargo itself. Hawley understands that while movies are defined by action and plot, TV thrives in the spaces between the story. There’s a considered cleverness and kindness to his scripts that would never fit into the tight margins of a motion picture; it lights this Fargo from within.
This becomes especially clear when the focus pivots from the bloody doings of Lester and Lorne to the stumbling triage attempted by the show’s heroes: Hanks’s Gus Grimly and Deputy Molly Solverson — the latter played with true grit by newcomer Allison Tolman. Like Marge, Molly is an extremely specific, extremely dignified person making her way through a messy, male-dominated world. Tolman isn’t given as much to do as McDormand — who, it should be noted, won a well-deserved Oscar for the role — but she’s given enough. It’s Molly’s relentless decency that stands as a bulwark against the stuttering self-justification of Lester and the nihilistic violence of Lorne. It also helps provide a delicious contrast to the self-serious gore staining nearly everything else on the air. High in style, rich in humanity, the later episodes of Fargo are exactly the sort of television I like to watch. I only wish they didn’t have to be Trojan horsed into something familiar in order to be made.
Should the ratings or Emmy nominations warrant it, Fargo will be back for a second season with an entirely new cast and story, à la True Detective. In the Times, Hawley spoke of the ability to “jump around” in time and distance, provided the locale didn’t stray too far from the Dakotas. That’s all well and good, but it strikes me as unfairly limiting. Why can’t Hawley write a crime caper set in the steamy Everglades or posh Cape Cod? Why should he be forced to maroon himself on Hoth? I want more TV like Fargo, but less TV inspired by Fargo. An original story ought to be its own selling point. A fresh vision and an idiosyncratic voice should be their own rewards. Is such a thing likely in the short term? No. Competition is too fierce, bottom lines too tight. But is it possible? To quote a great woman: You betcha.