Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fargo (TV)

2014, writer/showrunner: Noah Hawley

Oh man, Fargo.  Not so much a place as an idea, a theme, a feeling.

This is indeed a television series linked to the 1996 Coen Brothers masterpiece, but it's not a retelling, nor is it a direct sequel or prequel in that none of the character of the film find their way into the series.  Really, it's just a tonal successor to the film, a semi-homage to the Coen Brothers oeuvre whilst still forging its own path and own reason for being.  It's a crime drama (with darkly comedic undercurrents) set in northern middle America (Minnesota, basically, vacillating between the towns of Bemidji and Duluth) in the dead of winter where cabin fever rides high, and the sunlight lays low.  Vitamin D is in short supply.

David just mentioned his apathy towards the show after watching the first episode, and I get it.  If you've seen and followed the works of the Coen Bros, the first episode feels like a lite version thereof, more homage than copycat, but still not existing entirely on its own foundation.  I came into the show with the second episode, where the characters are all just starting to deal with the repercussions of the first (wherein a character murders his nagging wife, while also inadvertently sicking a hitman on a former childhood bully, and the hitman in turn murders the police chief).  I stepped back into the first episode and slowly had all the details of the plot slowly illuminate themselves.  In some respects this is almost a preferred method to watch.  The complexity of the puzzle already in place by the second episode drew me in as a viewer, and to see some of the pieces fall into place then by viewing the first was far more satisfying.

Over some fine Mexican tacos and spirits, David presented me with his opinions of the pilot, and it's seeming pale retread of film it takes its name from, and I, having one further episode under my belt, expressed my concern that the show couldn't sustain itself as a simple retread of the Coen Brother's eccentricities.  But I've just finished episode 6, certainly it's finest and most engrossing hour to date, and I'm utterly entrenched in the show.  It's true that the pilot, and even the subsequent episode take plentiful pains to capture the style and rhythms of the Coens (not just Fargo, but traces of No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, Blood Simple and even the Ladykillers all seep into the characters and series tonality), but from there the characters and the weaving of the needlepoint plot take over and really abandon the overt ties to its progenitor... with few exceptions:

Each episode starts with the same disclaimer as the film, that it's based on a true story, names changed, etc.  It's a cute lie, but a constantly effective one, echoed in nearly every polite conversation the characters have with each other.  Meanwhile in episode 4, it's revealed in the opening flashback that there is a direct connection to the film, in that one of the characters found the briefcase of cash buried in the snow at the side of a desolate highway by divine interventions.

Fargo is a show unlike anything else on television.  It's those Echoes of the Coen Brothers, for sure, that hit you at first, but beyond that, things largely don't play out in the regular "television" way.  There are bright characters and dim characters, but those aren't necessarily defining characteristics, as the all behave in a natural way.  As I've learned over the first 6 (of 10) episodes, you can paint any character into one specific corner.  That's what's most surprising is the little and big leaps in character development that happen throughout the show.  The characters are as much a motivating force as the complex threads being stitched together.

The best way to talk about the show is to do a character breakdown.  SPOILERS AHEAD, but if you're waffling on the show, these spoilers may guide you more towards it (but may also drive you away knowing it's not right for you):

Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) - I think without Freeman I would have otherwise written off Fargo as a cable-TV curiosity, but with Sherlock, the Hobbit, and The Worlds End notably under his belt in recent years, Freeman is a genuine commodity and worth paying attention to.  His Lester Nygaard begins as an analog for William H Macy's hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard.  Here he's a faltering real estate insurance salesman, constantly emasculated by his wife, still bullied by his high school bully, and constantly reminded by his brother how big a disappointment he is to the family.  Lester, pushed to the brink, particularly by the malevolent force of Lorne Malvo (we'll get to him), snaps on his wife and beats her to death with a hammer. Things spiral out for Lester from there.  But, the difference between Lester and Macy's Jerry was I don't think Jerry really wanted to cause harm.  Lester, we're coming to know, has the seed of unrest within him, and he starts to let it out.  It turns out that Malvo, in his intention to muckrake in Lester's life, has awakened something more like himself.

Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) - There's a hint of Anton Chigurh in Lorne Malvo (a decidedly dastardly name if there ever was one), a real cool, collected, evil sonofabitch if there ever was one.  Malvo knows his place in the world: a loner, an apex predator, intelligent, and kind of bored.  Malvo is a Loki figure, a trickster, who inserts himself into people's lives for the sole purpose of making those lives more difficult.  But this nebulous figure reveals himself as parts of the real him seep through the cracks.  There's a misogynist under there, an anti-Semite, and probably a racist too (if there were any people of colour to speak of in this show...through and through in Fargo's setting and casting, it's awfully white).  He may or may not also be a religious man, he certainly knows his stuff.  There's no sense of what Malvo is really after, except to cause trouble and to not get caught.

Molly Solverson (Allison Tollman) - While Thornton and Freeman provide the marquee faces for the show and the perception, especially after the first episode, was that they're the show's lead, but it becomes quite clear that it's Molly, the assistant deputy in Bemidji, that is the show's center.  She's fiercely intelligent, though largely in the context of the other characters on the show.  She's observant, patient, and most importantly, unassuming.  She's constantly undervalued, dismissed even, but not by everyone.  Her dad, ex-police himself, is certainly aware of how good an officer she is (which also worries him), Gus also instantly recognizes how fantastic she is (to the point of being smitten), and her mentor, the now deceased police chief, was lining her up to take over his job.  Lester's never truly aware how fully on his case she is, and her new boss, Bill Oswalt, seems to dismiss almost everything she has to say out-of-hand.  Tollman is an unknown quantity but she has definite presence and busts out of the heavy-cast Frances McDormand shadow within two episodes.

Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) - Gus is a Duluth patrolman who's largely resigned to back-up animal control.  His boss and coworkers don't think much of him, largely because he hasn't given them much to consider.  It's not that Gus is dumb or lazy, but rather that he's in a job he doesn't want to be in,  or rather, even he doesn't think he should be in.  He comes across Malvo during a routine traffic pull-over and is sent scampering away with his tail between his legs.  When Gus learns that not only is Malvo an utterly creepy dude, but also wanted for suspected kidnapping and murder, he feels great weight and shame.  Unlike Lester who succumbs to his misdeeds and embraces the dark lifestyle, Gus wants his burden lifted as soon as possible, and he comes clean to his boss and to the Bemidji PD, where he meets Molly.  Gus's primary focus is raising his daughter, and keeping her safe, but he does realize that he has a job that he's sworn an oath to do, and despite his best judgement he's going to make right.  Gus and Molly are the moral centers of the show, around which all the nastiness orbits.

Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) - Stavros, twenty years younger, and in a desperate plea to the Lord, found a case full of money on the side of the road.  With it, he built a grocery store mini-empire.  In present day, he's divorced with a dim-witted son whom he loves unconditionally.  But he's being blackmailed, particularly about the found money, causing him great measures of stress.  Malvo comes into his employ to take care of his blackmailer (the impetus for his arrival in the area), and, upon discovering the perpetrator, quickly takes over the blackmailing himself.  He senses Savros' religious leanings and leans on them hard, slowly perpetrating the ten plagues on him.  Malvo is less after the money than to drive this man insane.

Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard) - These could be perceived as the odd-couple hitmen like Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare's characters from the film, but they serve a little different purpose, especially with Malvo in the mix.  Malvo kills Lester's bully, a local shipping magnate who runs guns (and other things) for the Fargo mafia, and it's Numbers and Wrench who are sent in to take care of the problem.  But with Malvo's tangling with Lester, their mission becomes confused, and things are bound to get messy.  Wrench is deaf, which is, yeah, a quirk, but it plays out in great ways, such as Lester's escape from a sure and icy demise, as well as a wonderful scene in a diner where Wrench and Numbers argue furiously in sign language, still attracting attention no less.

Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) - Bill becomes chief of police after his predecessor's demise, and is placed there not out of competency (at which point it would surely have been Molly's job, as she was told) but out of seniority.  Bill does not have the faculties for hard police work, even more so than Gus.  He's willing to take everyone at their word, at total face value, to the point where he's largely unwilling to entertain anyone else's opinions or perceptions.  But, one of the show's most delightful moments, Bill isn't a perennial block for Molly's investigation into the connection between Lester and Malvo, he's just the impetus for her to work harder.  She gathers the evidence, presents it to him, and even Bill can't ignore what's in front of him, to his and the show's credit.  They present Bill early on as this numbskull obstacle but as they do with most characters they manage to provide moments of real depth that show there's more than just the superficiality.

This is only scratching the surface of the characters and layers in the show.  Lester's brother, Gus's neighbour, the widow Hess and her two sons, the appropriately named Don Chumph (Don's not bright nor very likeable but what happens to him is gut wrenching to watch), Stavros' ex-wife, his son and his henchmen, Gus's daughter... there's so many layers, and the relationships the characters have with each other add another sense of depth to the show that can't be ignored.  But then how the show weaves these disparate people, their deeds and desires together, it's utterly captivating.

Beyond the characters, this is a show that looks like little else on TV.  It's set a decade or so in the past so there's a bit of an out-of-time quality, that only exacerbates that sort of out-of-time feeling smaller-town settings.  The winter landscape is used to maximum effect with wide shots used not just for establishing a scene but also witnessing events play out at a distance.  What's most peculiar for modern television is the patience in letting a scene breathe.  Everything is so deliberately timed, such that even a sequence like the snowstorm conflict ratchets up the intensity by not moving at a faster clip.  And wow, that snowstorm conflict...