There is no Marge Gunderson in Fargo, the new limited series based on the 1996 Coen brothers film, which premieres April 15 on FX. There’s no Jerry Lundegaard, no Wade Gustafson, no Mike Yanagita. No wood chipper either, at least not in the first four episodes, though there are other acts of imaginative violence to be found out in the snow.
The television incarnation of Fargo is an unusual thing, a sideways adaptation that tries to capture the spirit and feel of the movie without making use of its story or characters. And while it’s a enjoyable if more overtly quirky drama unto itself, the best thing it does is make you think about the qualities that define the movie outside of what happens in it — the things that make Fargo… Fargo. Here’s what the TV series takes from the film.
3. It’s the story of the worst thing that happened in a small town.
The 10 episodes of the first season of Fargo were written entirely by showrunner Noah Hawley (with the Coens’ blessing — they’re executive producers on the project), and should the show get renewed, it’ll continue American Horror Story anthology style with new characters and a new story rather than picking up where it left off. Hawley, speaking at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, has rightly pointed out that having a series be about the many dark crimes investigated by a small-town police officer would go against the spirit of the film, that “when Marge gets in bed at the end after this very strange and violent case that she’s just investigated, we know that tomorrow she’s going to wake up and it’s going to be a normal day.”
The film Fargo isn’t just a story about Marge (Frances McDormand), who isn’t introduced until half an hour in, it’s one about a bungled kidnapping that left multiple people dead, and how those actions affect our heroine from Brainerd. It’s about how evil comes to a community, and about how it was also there all along, lurking in the hearts of upright members like William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard as much as in sullen Fargo thug Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Jerry’s bungled kidnapping scheme and his undermined masculinity are as mundane and understandable as Marge’s straightforward goodness and determination. While the TV series starts with Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a parallel to Jerry, it also quickly expands to include an ensemble of cops, criminals, and bystanders who are pulled into a series of interconnected crimes.
Both Fargo the film and the series get laughs out of how their stable, solid Midwesterners react to sudden, sometimes outlandish bursts of violence, but they also get pathos. When Marge says to the man she apprehends at the end of the movie that, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know,” she means it. She genuinely can’t grasp how someone would takes the steps he did by the time she finds him. “And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”
4. It’s all about what lurks beneath the Minnesota nice.
Fargo’s chipper “you betchas” and regional intonations are probably the first thing that come to mind when you think about the movie, and the TV series doesn’t skimp on the signature accents either. But it’s more importantly focused on the politeness that the characters find almost impossible to break out of, even when rage and frustration are bubbling underneath. The film is filled with confrontations pretending to be restrained conversations, like the early one in which Jerry maneuvers a customer at the car dealership into paying for sealant he didn’t order, with the man actively struggling to utter a profanity. Jerry’s every exchange with his gruff father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) finds him being casually but brutally undermined or dismissed. And Marge’s dinner with Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) is a wonderful scene of awkward, inappropriate attempted wooing Marge is too cordial to extricate herself from.
Surface cheer doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of less pleasant emotions underneath, as amusing as it is to funnel a bloody crime story through such friendly, self-deprecating Minnesotans. And in his early scenes in the Fargo series, Martin Freeman displays the divide between how these characters act and how they actually feel. His Lester, a sad sack Bemidji insurance salesman, begins his day getting needled by his wife (who talks admiringly about his brother’s success before joking she “married the wrong Nygaard”). Then he has a run-in with the guy who used to bully him as a teenager, and nervously smiles his way through the man’s reminisces about his cruelties in high school and once hooking up with the woman Lester married. Lester’s ready to snap, but he can barely articulate his anger, even when talking to a total stranger (Billy Bob Thornton) in the emergency room about how he left the encounter with a broken nose. That stranger, Lorne Malvo, actually seems borrowed from another Coen brothers movie, with his terrible haircut and almost satanic air of remove and danger — he’s Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, dressed for the cold weather.
5. It makes heartland America look like an arctic snowscape.
The Coen brothers have a gift for turning familiar locations into off-kilter and unsettling mini-universes, from the 1940s Hollywood-as-purgatory of Barton Fink to the endless, chilly New York City loop of Inside Llewyn Davis. But as native Minnesotans, they bring a noticeable fondness and personal touch to Fargo’s locales, while appreciating just how inhospitable and bleak the area can look. The series opens with a similar shot to the one with which the movie starts, a car driving along a road in the snow in a flat, barren landscape that appears to go on in either direction forever. And it’s at the side of such a desolate stretch that the series has a moment of contact with the film, one that’s brief enough that it wouldn’t register if you hadn’t seen the latter.
As close as it tries to keep in tone to the film, Fargo the series doesn’t treat its characters with the same deadpan acceptance that the film does. A pair of contract killers who communicate in sign language (played by Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard) and a stripper-turned-housewife (Kate Walsh) are self-consciously unconventional in a way that, say, the two hookers Marge interviews in the film, bobbing their heads and talking about where they went to high school, aren’t. It’s something the Coens do better than anyone else, making the worlds in which their films take place feel like consistent wholes rather than collections of odd details and people. What the show is able to do is keep adding to its universe, to introduce supermarket kingpins and the competitive world of regional trucking and more. The story of Fargo may end, but the series offers the promise of it being a peculiar place that can be returned to again and again, and that’s a prospect that is hard to turn down.