How far could Fargo go if Fargo could go far?
In my precap for FX's new series, I had a number of questions, but they boil down to two main points:
- Will I like it?
- How will it portray Minnesota?
After having watched the premiere tonight, my answers are:
- I still don't know. I was disappointed but intrigued.
- About as expected. Heavy handed at times, but tolerable.
I'll start with a short plot summary, though I have to admit recaps always strike me as a bit odd, as generally one only reads them if they've seen the program in question and already know what happened. On the other hand, I like reading them. I guess it helps ensure that I caught everything, or can help jog the memory when reading an old recap.
So... middle aged milquetoast Martin Freeman gets bullied by an old high school nemesis. While being treated for his injuries at the hospital, he runs into Billy Bob Thornton, a bad guy who spun off a frozen road to avoid a deer. We know he's bad because he had a guy captive in the trunk of his car.
BBT suggests that he kill the bully, Sam, and Martin doesn't say yes - but he doesn't say no. Come to think of it, this is perhaps the most Minnesotan thing about this episode. BBT murders Sam, who is banging a hooker saying "yah, yah" in a callback to a scene from the movie version of Fargo.
Martin finds out what happened and doesn't know what to do. Back at home, he botches up a washing machine repair in the basement, which pushes his wife to belittle him. Her taunts - and the words of "wisdom" BBT shared with him regarding the lack of rules in this world - drive him to picking up a hammer and bashing her head in.
Panicked, he calls BBT and begs him to come over and help him out. In the meantime, the Bemidji police have been on the case of Sam's murder and realized that Martin was talking to a stranger about Sam in the hospital recently. So the police chief stops by Martin's, where he discovers a dead wife... and is shot to death by BBT, who disappears just as the deputy arrives. What is Martin to do? He's cornered.
He simply runs headlong into a basement wall, knocking himself out and making it look as though he is the sole survivor of a brutal home invasion.
He wakes up in a hospital. BBT goes to Duluth and freaks out a cop who pulls him over, and the deputy talks with her dad.
So that's the what. What about the how?
This is where it gets tricky. In many ways, I had the sense of a good bar band covering Bob Dylan. The material is good, the delivery isn't bad but it pales compared to the original. The more the singer tries to sound like Dylan, the worse the performance.
An so it goes here. I'm not sure everyone appreciates the Coens' deft touch with tone. To combine hilarity and suspense and emotional stakes and gravitas... well, it's not easy. It's hard enough to master one tone, let alone two are three. And most of this extra longer premiere showed the work at the seams. The humor wasn't especially funny, the drama didn't carry much weight until late in the episode.
Also, there was almost no one to like - and I don't mean as a hero, just as someone you might enjoy hanging out with. Walter White was a monster, but charming. Don Draper? Messed up dude but charismatic. The only character here who wasn't a two dimensional plot device was Vern, the police chief. His accent wasn't too broad, he didn't act like a dope or a jerk, and that set him apart from everyone else. But now he's gone.
I wondered why they had flipped the gender dynamic from the film: Marge is one of the great characters in the Coen canon, but here we have a male chief and female deputy. By the end, however, it appears that this was setting up the female deputy to "become" the series' Marge.
Let's go to the bullet points:
- Starting on a snowy, lonely country highway with a caption falsely labeling this as a "true story" struck me as too on-the-nose an homage to the film.
- I feel this could have been tighter and better as a standard hour premiere.
- The music and cinematography (and clothing) all hewed very close to the film - and that's fine with me.
- A lot of the characters felt forced and "written" rather than organic. Not the way the local color was evinced in the Louisiana of "True Detective" or the Kentucky hollers of "Justified." The bully's idiot sons, for example, and his wife. Martin's wife, who makes Skyler White and other television wives look like Mother Teresa.
- How much of the lifestyle is 2006 v. 2014; small town v. urban; coastal v. Midwest? I expected a lot of it would be "flyover" cliche, but the more I thought about it, the more universal I felt some of the atmosphere was, more Hollywood economic mockery than geographic. If that makes sense.
- Billy Bob, though, is a lot of fun. He's a quiet ham, which is an oxymoron. His character gleefully incites disorder, and his bangs and bent for philosophizing call to mind the Coens' Anton Chigurh. And this is a compliment - he seemed to me like Evil Spock as portrayed by Timothy Olyphant.
- In an ideal world, this would be Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" set in "Twin Peaks."
- Did Canada pass for Minnesota? For the most part, close enough.
- Lots of "real" instead of "really"; "jeez" and "yah." But what about "sweet"? That was uttered a fair amount and I never thought of that as being a Minnesota thing.
- Best accent: maybe the innkeeper, she sounds like a lot of folks I know.
- Duluth? Maybe not.
Where does it go from here? I hope the premiere was like a shakedown cruise and that the series will really pick up steam, to mix metaphors, over the next few weeks. Will Martin "Jerry Lundegaard" Freeman try to let this blow over or has he changed? What will bring BBT back to Bemidji? Will our heroine, the deputy, rise to the occasion? Will any scene feature a character watching a Timberwolves' game?
I'd love to hear anyone else's reaction to this pilot. Fire away.