Forgo Fargo at your own peril. Is the 10-part miniseries, which reaches its halfway point tonight on FX, worthy of the masterful 1996 Coen brothers film from whence it was adapted? You betcha. Oh yah, real good.
Joel and Ethan Coen are executive producers here, but like the late, great Friday Night Lights, the TV version of Fargo mostly just shares setting and vibe with its source material, not characters or plot points. That "new look, same great taste" approach means we're back in desolate yet unflappably polite small-town Minnesota, but it's populated by a new cast of miscreants and do-gooders. And yes, almost all of them speak in highly affected Upper Midwest accents straight out of Bobby's World.
The show exists in the same narrative universe as the movie, and it repeats some of the same details—a miserable shell of a man dangles his toe into the criminal underworld, a plucky female cop is on his case, and a terrified passenger flees into the woods beside a frozen highway—but they're jumbled and dispersed across new scenarios and different municipalities. Primary action takes place in Bemidji, about two hours north of the movie's main Brainerd stomping ground. No wood chippers as of yet.
As with fellow miniseries American Horror Story and True Detective, each potential future season will feature a whole new story with a completely different cast. Hard to imagine series creator Noah Hawley topping this ensemble, though: a career-best Billy Bob Thornton as a hitman who incites chaos with the chilling unsentimentality of Anton Chigurh and the maniacal delight of Tyler Durden; Alison Tolman as a policewoman every bit as intuitive as Frances McDormand's legendary Marge Gunderson, but not nearly as self-assured; a brilliantly infuriating (and mustachioed) Bob Odenkirk as the bane of her existence; Colin Hanks as a boyish, weak-willed animal-control officer who teams with Tolman on some impossibly wholesome #TrueDetectiveSeason2 endeavors; Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard as a pair of idiosyncratic thugs; Oliver Platt as "the supermarket king of Minnesota"; It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia stooge Glenn Howerton as Platt's bottle-tanned personal trainer. Coming soon: Key & Peele as FBI agents!
It's the kind of show where even the most minor characters are characters. All of them peer deeply into the fragile human void, but none of them wince, nor inspire winces, quite like Lester Nygaard, the TV Fargo's equivalent to William H. Macy's sniveling Jerry Lundegaard, embodied here with fearless timorousness by Martin Freeman.
Freeman has been playing woeful, mild-mannered underdogs on British TV for years, from The Office's frustrated man-child Tim Canterbury to Sherlock's oft-bewildered Dr. Watson. His cinematic roles have followed suit: sheepish porn star Jack in Love Actually, hapless Earthling refugee Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, fearful homebody Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. He's done downtrodden in many shades, but never so spineless, so desperate, so pathetic as this. Also: never so American. To hear Freeman emitting Lester's flyover-country dialect is to savor the most magnificently mild lutefisk.
By every conventional measure of masculinity, Lester is incompetent. He can't effectively sell insurance, fix the washing machine, or please his wife in the sack. When given the privilege of holding his more successful younger brother's prized machine gun, he drops it on the garage floor and helplessly watches it shatter into pieces. As such, he is an object of disrespect—ridiculed by his wife, disdained by his brother, still harassed by the bully who stuffed him in an oil barrel and rolled him into the street in high school. "You're not a man, Lester," his embittered wife tells him. "You're not even half a man."
So it follows that Lester is also the sort of impotent insect who can't quite believe he's lying to a police officer, or tasing the side of an assailant's head, or—BIG SPOILER A'COMIN'—repeatedly striking his wife between the eyes with a hammer while muttering, "Aw jeez" until she is a bloody, bloated husk on the basement floor. There are definite Walter White parallels, but Walter White wanted to win at life. Lester just wants to survive. He is the one who knocks politely.
Freeman plays that brutal scene with the heavy breathing and wild countenance it demands, but it's a rare burst of volume amid his understated facial guitar solo of abjection. Reaction shots have long been his foremost weapon: He pioneered the bemused camera-mugging that John Krasinski rode to a comfortable living Stateside, and his perplexed head-cocks are the Picassos of the form. But on Fargo, he's reaching a new pinnacle of pitiful.
We ought to properly recognize the makeup team for its part in this: Whether those are supposed to be bruises or dark circles across Lester's cheeks, they make his eyes look especially sunken, as if they're cowering in their sockets. Credit the accompanying majestic despondency mostly to Freeman's virtuoso facial tics, though: his blank stares while contemplating life's insurmountable challenges, his hollow smiling and nodding in deference to any and everyone, his terrified/titillated dopey grin while being seduced by a widowed ex-stripper played by Dr. Addison Montgomery, the deliberate pace with which his widening eyes and shaking head build to a cringe as he comes to terms with his inner terror.
As Lester, 42-year-old Freeman fidgets like a five-year-old boy and shrugs his shoulders like a 78-year-old war prisoner. He is giving a master class in clenched-lip mouth-squirming. He's simply the best at being the worst, and watching the walls close in on him is gonna be one heck of a show.
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