The show, whose first season garnered the Best Miniseries Awards at the Primetime Emmys and at the Golden Globes last year, is adapted from the 1996 film of the same title starring Frances McDormand, written by Ethan and Joel Coen. The plots of the film and the first season are loosely similar: there’s a small town murder that involves a timid salesman and a vicious criminal (in the case of the film, a pair of criminals), and it’s up to a plucky, observant policewoman to solve the case. Neither the film nor the series is meant to be a whodunnit; it’s always clear to the viewer who killed whom, why this person does that, and who’s next. But where the film succeeds, and where the series exceeds (so as to avoid being repetitive with its predecessor), is in its portrayal of the complex situations through which the most ordinary, innocent-seeming people go to get what they want, the dark and startling decisions that these people eventually make, and the real, brutal consequences of these choices. While these may sound trite in the context of a crime show, it’s worth noting that the series manages to accomplish its tone through the filter of dark comedy, a trademark quality of the Coen Brothers’ films. More often than not, the show’s villains get away with their crimes, but not without leaving the viewer with a sense that they deserved to do just that. People suffer harsh deaths at their hands, and while it doesn’t totally vindicate the killers, the series allows you to sit back and laugh with them.
As an anthology show, perhaps Fargo‘s biggest challenge is how far it can deviate from the source material before it can go ahead and change the show’s title altogether. If you haven’t seen the film yet, there’s very little in the series that requires foreknowledge. The first season’s strongest ties to the original film are mostly thematic. The names of the show’s characters vaguely sounded like the names of their film counterparts, and the closest the show ever got to even referencing the original plot was to bring back its McGuffin. But it is very likely that the key to how true the show remains to Fargo is once again its loyalty to the Coen Brothers’ vision and voice. It’s almost as if twenty years ago showrunner Noah Hawley heard the story straight from the mouths of Ethan and Joel Coen, and tried to retell the story in full, mucking up a few details here and there. Hawley retains the Coens’ perspective of the broad strokes—small town murders, plucky policewoman, et cetera.
Meanwhile, the second season reinforces the series’ own mythos as it sets itself up as a prequel to the first season, for which there is no source material. Set in 1979, season two explores the younger years of Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), father to first season heroine Molly. A murder sets the whole thing off, and a young couple played by Kristen Dunst and Breaking Bad‘s Jesse Plemons are involved somehow. The victim has ties to a crime family in Fargo led by Jean Smart, and while Solverson and Ted Danson are tracing all the connections, he has to play bodyguard to Ronald Reagan, played by Bruce Campbell. This ensemble should be enough to convince you to catch up already.
Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist, Jesse Plemons as Ed Blumquist. Photo by Chris Large/FX.
On that note, the final point we ought to make about Fargo is the odd strength of its casting. It’s clear throughout the first season that the actors are chosen according to type. Martin Freeman does another small person who earns our sympathy. Bob Odenkirk has all the best intentions but always plays for the practical solution. Key and Peele essentially appear as themselves. Yet Fargo still manages to surprise us by knowing when to reverse these types. At some point in the show, Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thorton hilariously manage to switch roles, the former playing ruthless and the latter playing measly. It’s hilarious and a payoff for anyone familiar with their work. Meanwhile Bob Odenkirk remains the same all throughout. At the same time, just about everyone on the show has to put up with convincing the audience of their Minnesota heritage and how an almost goofy sense of niceness plays into their types. As season two employs the stylings of so many familiar names, it will be interesting to see which of them subvert our expectations. That’s how Fargo manages to stay so gosh-darned good.