Wednesday, May 28, 2014

TV Review: Fargo (2014)

Is Fargo the best television show on the air today? Does it rank among the great first seasons of a TV show ever? After a mere 8 episodes, it is probably hard to judge. And as someone who never watches network TV and tends to avoid any fad shows like Game of Thrones, I might not be in the best position to make the assessment. But among the few shows I still do watch, and considering all those I have watched over the years, Fargo has to be considered among the best. It has the quirky charm and humor of Twin Peaks together with the gritty action and clever plot twists of a Neo-Noir film. In fact, it has to be considered one of the best ensemble dramas in television history, with excellent performances from a host of quality character actors including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Oliver Platt and Bob Odenkirk, together with a great supporting cast of lesser knowns. Colin Hanks has also returned to television after his excellent turn as the schizophrenic killer in season 6 of Dexter, his talent for playing good-hearted screw ups, accented by the acute detective skills of his love interest Molly (Allison Tolman).

The show, of course, bases itself loosely off of the Coen brother’s film of the same name, though the events here appear to take place after the film ends – as we find out one character found the money left by the kidnapper in the film (the show is co-written by the Coen brothers themselves, together with Noah Hawlyey). They also use the ploy of claiming it is based on a “true story,” though that is true in neither case. What is true is that surrounding the humor and violence is a rather profound existential journey through the lives of caricatured characters that are both relatable to and identifiable with. The directing, which was done in a rotation of 2 episodes each by five directors, is pitch perfect and seems to capture that same disarming, playful aesthetic that shows like Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure and Moonlighting did twenty years ago. While the violence does appear excessive at times, it is almost always off screen and the willingness to kill characters off (as The Wire did before them), adds to the suspense, as we wonder who might go next.

The story revolves around four main characters – Malvo, the strange, violent troublemaker who appears to adversely affect anyone he comes in contact with;  Molly, the clever, Hercule Poirotesque policewoman fighting against the incompetence that surrounds her; Gus Grimly, the aforementioned single father trying to raise his teenage daughter and overcome his innate weakness; and Lester Nygaard, the loser who upon meeting Malvo finds his life first unraveling and then taking a turn for the better. Intermingled is a wonderful cast of odd and funny characters that range from a widowed police wife who just had a baby, to a quintessential Midwestern hunter to a deaf hit man. From week to week, the story turns with violent force and momentum, but it is sometimes the quiet moments that provide the most fun – like a Jewish neighbor sharing a story with Gus about a man that sacrifices himself to leave his organs to strangers.

Many shows have trouble maintaining the momentum of their premier going into the tougher second or third season – with a long list of failed attempts peppering the annals of television history. One recent example is Scandal, which started out as a rather riveting political soap opera before devolving into WTF absurdity last season, but it is a common problem for even the best of shows (lest us forget that Moonlighting became almost unwatchable by season 4 (and 3 was tepid at best) and Twin Peaks was only great for 1 ½ of its 2 seasons on the air). Fargo has all the ingredients to continue to astound, but it will probably have to find a new story line as fans seem less than amused by the false cliff-hanging ending, as happened with the otherwise excellent The Killing two seasons back. Two episodes remain this season and I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next. 

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