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Getting its Billy Bob on: FX's mesmerizing Fargo


Billy Bob Thornton is evil-doer Lorne Malvo in Fargo. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 15th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Keith Carradine, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Russell Harvard, Glenn Howerton, Kate Walsh, Joe King
Produced by: Noah Hawley, Warren Littlefield, Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen, Adam Bernstein, Geyer Kosinski

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Billy Bob Thornton’s malevolent Lorne Malvo prowls through FX’s Fargo like the Mayhem Man in those current-day Allstate insurance commercials.

He’s much deadlier, though, ending or destroying lives whenever it suits his purposes. Collateral damage is the cost of doing business. And Malvo very quietly goes about that business while also ensnaring others in his web. Prepare to be ensnared as well. This is one helluva television show.

It’s nearing 20 years since Joel and Ethan Coen’s now classic original 1996 Fargo feature film. Both NBC and CBS soon passed on proposed TV series versions, with the latter network reaching the point of making a pilot starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco.

The risk-taking FX network didn’t exist back then. But it’s in full bloom now, and Fargo turns out to be a perfect fit as a 10-episode “limited series” that could return for a second season but not with the same mix of characters. FX’s American Horror Story and HBO’s True Detective are already cast in this mold.

Fargo has the Coen brothers’ blessing -- which is no small accomplishment -- and lists them among its executive producers. But the hands-on architect is Noah Hawley, whose most recent effort, the Austin-made My Generation, lasted for just a few eye blinks on ABC in fall 2010.

Hawley, with an assist from former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield, is on far firmer ground this time. Most of it is rock-hard and snow-covered, with accommodating Calgary, Alberta standing in for Bemidji, Minnesota, circa 2006.

Fargo the TV series has the same opening disclaimer as Fargo the movie. It claims to be based on a “true story.” But at the “request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

Nonsense. Not that it matters. The Coens cobbled their Fargo together from various more or less real-life incidents. Hawley does likewise with a new set of characters and circumstances. Still, you’ll see some carry-over prototypes while also hearing a re-arranged version of that indelible theme music.

Martin Freeman (Watson in PBS’ Sherlock films) brilliantly plays insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, a stammering milquetoast whose wife is fed up with his overall ineptness. In the movie, William H. Macy played the similarly weak Jerry Lundegaard, who sold cars instead of policies. Bundled against the cold, both could be mistaken for Elmer Fudd.

Relative newcomer Allison Tolman (a Baylor University grad who earlier eked out a living as a Dallas stage actor) is likewise superb as dogged deputy sheriff Molly Solverson. She diligently pursues every lead, as did Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the movie. But Marge was married and pregnant. Molly is the single daughter of a former cop turned restaurant owner (the ever sturdy Keith Carradine as Lou Solverson).

Thornton’s character is the new Fargo’s most original creation. But the movie’s principal criminals, Carl Showalter and mute Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare) are loosely reprised as Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench (Adam Goldberg, Russell Harvard). This time, however, they’re in hot pursuit of Malvo after he murders one of their own.

A quartet of featured characters is entirely new to FX’s Fargo.

Colin Hanks plays Duluth cop Gus Grimley, a single dad whose initial timidity in the presence of Malvo prompts him to slowly grow a spine.

Bob Odenkirk, soon to star in AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, keeps busy as soon-to-be Bemidji police chief Bill Oswalt. Possessed of a weak stomach at crime scenes, he also turns out to be a constant roadblock to Molly’s detective work.

Oliver Platt is Stavros Milos, who’s susceptible to blackmail as the pompous and prosperous “supermarket king of Minnesota.”

Kate Walsh, coming off a long haul through Grey’s Anatomy and its Private Practice spinoff, plays former Vegas stripper Gina Hess, wife of an ill-fated trucking company owner who has delighted in bullying Lester since their high school days.

The Tuesday, April 15th premiere episode runs from 9 to 10:37 p.m. (central), so set your DVRs accordingly. FX also sent three more one-hour episodes for review, allowing TV critics to fully immerse themselves in this frozen winter “Uff da” land. Some practical questions also crop up, such as why Lester is allowed to freely visit and revisit what’s become a major crime scene. Or how Malvo, in Episode 4, is so sure of being exonerated.

Some of this should matter, I guess. But Fargo flexes far more than it vexes. Its sense of menace, primarily from Thornton’s Malvo, holds the balance of power in a sparring match with the loopy goings-on that also permeated the film. It all begins when Malvo and Nygaard have a chance encounter in a hospital waiting room. Speak of the devil.

Fargo also is graphically violent in fits and spurts, with Malvo the overall orchestrator. He’s not one to ever raise his voice, but those on the receiving end can feel its chill. Thornton, in his first TV series outing, gives off a very vivid vibe from the dark side of his personal moon. “This is a man who doesn’t deserve to draw breath,” he tells the pliant Lester. It’s contagious.

The new Fargo bobs, weaves and occasionally unravels a bit. Still, it’s never less than entrancing, with the recurring panoramic shots of an unforgiving deep freeze serving as stolid supporting characters. Winter has finally drawn its last breath throughout most of the country, but it can’t be stopped in Fargo. This is a not-to-be-missed series replete with simpletons, blowhards, cold hearts and salt-of-the-earth pillars who’d best not be underestimated.

Say “aw geez.” And then settle in.


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