Monday 24 October 2016

New Fargo makes for bloody good TV

Kirsten Dunst in Fargo.
Kirsten Dunst in Fargo.

IF there were such a thing as an award for Upcoming Series Most Likely to Fail Miserably, Fargo would have been top of most people’s list of contenders last year.

Trying to replicate the magic of one of the Coen brothers’ best, as well as best-loved, films appeared to be an astonishing demonstration of hubris on the part of series creator Noah Hawley.

Fargo looked destined to end up on the scrapheap, sharing junkyard space with failed attempts at small-screen versions of, among countless justly forgotten misfires, LA Confidential, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and (I swear I’m not making this one up: there are clips on YouTube, if you dare watch) Casablanca, which featured poor David Soul hopelessly trying to fill the space where Humphrey Bogart should be.

Turning Fargo into a television series seemed like the single dumbest idea anyone had had since . . . well, since the last time someone tried to turn Fargo into a television series. That was back in 1997 and it never got beyond the pilot stage.

And were we wrong? Yah, you betcha! Fargo was superb. True Detective was the only thing that challenged it for the title of best drama series of 2014. It was a close-run race, but I’d give it to Fargo by a nose for its abundance of richness and ingenuity.

It didn’t just revisit and pay respect to the violent, blackly comic, yet unstintingly moral universe created by the Coens, who gave Hawley their full blessing and then generously stood back and let him get on with it; it expanded that universe, populating it with a collection of marvellously vivid new characters and situations.


Fargo did a number of wonderful things. It liberated Martin Freeman from the “Mr Nice” straitjacket that had been confining him since his days playing Tim in The Office. It reminded the world, with ferocious force, that Billy Bob Thornton is one of the most electrifying screen actors drawing breath at the moment.

Best of all, it gave birth to a dazzling new star: Allison Tolman, who played Deputy Molly Solverson and made more of a case than a thousand tedious, self-obsessed Lena Dunhams ever could for giving lead roles to actresses who look like real women and not rail-thin department store dummies.

True Detective 2 found it difficult to shoulder the weight of expectation into a second season (although I still think time will show it to be far better than its bandwagon-jumping detractors claimed). No such trouble with the new Fargo, which whisks us back to Minnesota in 1979.

From the opening black-and-white scene — a hilarious and very Coenesque recreation of a Ronald Reagan movie shoot (Reagan in politician guise, played by Bruce Campbell, will pop up in later episodes) — through to  the tantalising final moments, it hums with confidence and assurance.

Molly is present, but only as a cute little girl sitting on the lap of her doting dad, State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson, better than he’s ever been), while he reads her a bedtime story. We already know from last time that Lou ended up a widower, and now we know why: his wife Betsy (Christine Milioti) has cancer.

Location aside, Molly and Lou — played as an older man by Keith Carradine in the previous season — are the only elements, so far, connecting this season to the previous one, but familiar Fargo traits are present and correct: the snowy landscapes; the headlights beaming along straight, lonely roads; the colourful characters; the idiosyncratic dialogue and speech patterns.

Oh, and the blood. There was a bucketful of blood in last night’s first episode, nearly all of it spilled by Rye Gerhardt, the useless punk-kid youngest son of a prominent crime family who’s been pilfering from the firm’s takings.

Rye, fabulously well played by Kieran Culkin, is a nervy, jerky, coked-up accident waiting to happen. The accident duly happens when Rye trails a judge to a roadside diner to try and persuade her to change her mind about freezing his business associate’s assets. The two of them plan to make a fortune from the next big thing: IBM electric typewriters (the period detail in Fargo is nothing if not scrupulous).

She refuses and sprays him in the eyes with fly-killer. He shoots her and then shoots two other people, but not before taking a knife in the back, after which he wanders into the road, quite possibly sees a UFO (Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in 1979: like I said, scrupulous period detail) and is then mashed to bits by a passing car.

While Lou and his father in law, the laconic Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), are examining the crime scene, we learn that the driver of the car that hit Rye is Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), the apparently sex-shy wife of mild-mannered butcher Ed (Jesse Plemons).

Peggy, who exhibits a sociopathic degree of calm under pressure, has stashed Rye in the basement garage. Small problem: he’s not quite dead . . . at least not until poor Ed finishes him off with a garden tool.

I doubt I’m doing justice to Fargo. Sometimes even a jaded old TV critic struggles to find adequate words. Sometimes all you can do is sit back and admire the astonishing talent that went into its making.

This is one of those times. Unmissable television.

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