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FX’s Fargo recaptures spirit of the Coens’ film

Billy Bob Thornton stars in Fargo.

Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton stars as a hired killer with an eccentric notion of morality in ‘Fargo,’ premiering tonight on FX.

When I heard that FX was adapting the Oscar-winning movie Fargo into a 10-episode limited series, which premieres tonight, I felt a mixture of joy and apprehension.
On the one hand, Joel and Ethan Coen’s brilliant 1996 black comedy sits securely in my own private list of the five best American movies ever made. On the other, one of the reasons I loved it as much as I do is that Fargo was so defiantly its own thing, a movie that pretty much defied pigeonholing, I was skeptical it could be adapted to another medium.
Thankfully, series creator and executive producer Noah Hawley “gets” Fargo on every level, and his series uncannily captures the spirit and energy of the Coens’ classic, while striking off in its own direction. You won’t find police chief Marge Gunderson (Oscar winner Frances McDormand) or hapless car dealer Jerry Lundergaard (should-have-been-an Oscar winner William H. Macy) – or even a woodchipper, for that matter – in Fargo the series, but you’ll definitely recognize the distinctive combo platter of comedy, violence and Minnesota Nice.
Among its many new characters, Fargo first introduces us to Lorne Malvo (Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton), a laconic hit man whose latest gig goes south in the opening minutes of tonight’s pilot. While he collects himself and prepares to head to his next assignment, Lorne crosses paths with Lester Nygaard (Sherlock star Martin Freeman, making his American TV series debut), a sad-sack Bemidji, Minn., insurance salesman whose wife (Kelly Holden Bashar) belittles everything he does, especially compared to Lester’s much more successful younger brother. Poor Lester is such a meek loser that, even in middle age, he finds himself tormented regularly by Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady), the bully who made his life a living hell back in high school.
In the way life so often would have it, while Lester is still trying desperately to meet his wife’s lifestyle expectations, Sam is now a local trucking executive married to a former Las Vegas stripper (Kate Walsh, so delightfully funny that I’m ready to forget the silly soapiness of Private Practice).
And while Lorne is, in some respects, a spiritual brother to Anton Chigurh, the stone-cold killer Javier Bardem played in No Country for Old Men, something about Lester’s plight stirs Lorne’s very peculiar sense of moral outrage. Unfortunately, as he tries to set things right for Lester, Lorne sets them both plummeting down a rabbit hole of violence and chaos.
FX very helpfully sent out the first four episodes of Fargo, but I don’t want to give up any more plot details, because this show, by its very nature, is packed with surprises. Time and again, a moment of laugh-out-loud comedy is shattered by a hideous act of violence, and vice versa.
And oh, the dialogue. Fargo is one of those gloriously “written” series, where the characters spout lines that soar just a bit higher than normal conversation. Consider this wonderful moment, near the end of tonight’s pilot, that takes place after smalltown Minnesota cop Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) pulls over Lorne for bombing through a stop sign. Lorne is driving Lester’s car, a fact that could be severely incriminating, especially after Gus asks for his license and registration – and we can tell Lorne is going to kill Gus if he presses the issue.
Locking eyes with Gus, Lorne replies in a level voice: “We could do it that way. You ask me for my papers, I tell you it’s not my car, that I borrowed it. See where it goes. Or you could get in your car and drive away. … Because some roads you shouldn’t go down. Maps used to say ‘There be dragons here.’ Now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons ain’t there.”
I’m not saying that the new FX adaptation of Fargo is as good as the Coens’ masterpiece, but it does have just as strong a creative sense of itself and a confidence to pull it off. I’ll be watching.
Martin Freeman stars in 'Fargo.'

British actor Martin Freeman makes his American TV series debut in ‘Fargo.’