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Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Does FX's 'Fargo' Keep the Original's Darkness While Losing the Comedy?

Many words have been written this week about Tuesday’s premiere of the FX eponymous miniseries adaptation of Fargo, particularly in regards to its faithfulness to the classic and nearly universally adored Coen Brothers original. Critics seem to agree that the show, with the Coen Brothers blessing represented in the form of an Executive Producer credit, is faithful in setting and in certain character similarities to the film, but it is mostly not attempting to be an adaptation at all. Rather, it is its own set of stories that take place in the same snow-covered, “you betcha” oeuvre and the various criminals — hapless to exacting — that inhabit and pass through. I should say from the jump that I quite enjoyed the pilot episode, which flashed tremendous story and character potential to be fleshed out as the world builds and expands over its ten hour run. However, judging from the pilot, it seems the show will fall more into the realm of dark male violence that has defined prestige television for the last decade rather than the misanthropic dark comedy typical of my favorite Coen films. In other words, Fargo the series may have kept the dark and lost the comedy.

Just looking at the opening shots of the two projects, there are strong indicators of the mood the creators are trying to set. Both shots begin with titles on screen, the frame covered in the white Minnesota winter. In the distance, a beat up car drives towards the frame, and that is where the similarities end. In the film, as the car gets closer we see it drive through the frame towing another car behind it, an actively unusual scene. We later learn that the driver of that car is William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless sleaze whose choice to have his wife kidnapped in an effort to collect the ransom sets the films plot in motion. In the show, the car belongs to Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo who drives through the night, hits a deer, swerves off the road, and lets loose a man in his underwear who was held captive in his trunk. In leading with Malvo, who through the pilot is the shows most ruthless and capable character, a darker, more precise tone is set. Malvo is a confident killer in the vein of the No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh.

The difference in these two opening shots is important in an overall stylistic choice by the creators of the TV project that shifts the tone further away from comedy. Perhaps symptomatic of a large TV budget or even just advances in technology, FX’s Fargo simply looks much better, cleaner, and crisper than its source material. The deeper blacks and more shadowy lighting set ups, variations in depth of field, work to give the show a heavier, more serious look. It is a look we can associate with murder stories. What works so well in the film is that the darkness in the characters and plot is juxtaposed against all the homey midwestern effect of the production design. Macy’s tacky office, his suit that is practically eating him alive, the cars he sells, the way the whole thing is very flatly lit, all have a light, somewhat dirty, drab quality to them that gives the film and very particular quirk.

The characters in the film also work harder to disguise any sense of dread they might feel surrounding them, a sense of dread that is much more on the surface in the television adaptation. Whereas in the film, Lundergaard is a car salesman, his TV equivalent, Martin Freeman’s Nygaard, is a life insurance salesman, a profession that faces a much more grim daily outlook. Of course, darkly comedic moments are certainly present in the TV adaptation, most notably in Freeman’s interactions with Thornton. Freeman’s nervous energy plays well against Thornton’s chilly stillness and the first scene they have together, while both in the emergency room, gives Freeman a chance to show off his physical comedy chops, squirming in his seat, on edge, head on a swivel while Thornton proposes a plan that both scares and excites him. However, lightness should not be confused for warmness or decency, and there is certainly a lack of warmth in this adaptation, the veneer of middle-American friendliness frozen over in the Minnesota winter. This is because in borrowing character traits and settings from the source material, the creators of the show have yet to find a way to replicate the film’s trump card, its most iconic character, Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson.

In his review of the original film, Roger Ebert writes, “The dark and cold weigh down everything, and in the middle, in their warm cocoon, are Chief Marge and her hubby, Norm, the painter of ducks. Without them, Fargo might have been In Cold Blood laced with unseemly humor.” FX’s Fargo has its Marge version, with Amy Tolman playing officer Molly Solverson, a competent female up-and-comer who stumbles upon the case at the center of the pilot. The key difference is Molly does not have the same confidence and balmy demeanor that McDormand brings to Marge. Marge, being the chief, has the confidence to solve the case her way and the experience to demand the respect of her male peers. Her pregnant stomach adds another layer of both sympathy and air of confidence to her character. The film is well-served with her as the town’s moral compass and anchor, a foil to the bumbling midwesterner presented around her. Molly, being younger and less experienced, does not yet have the confidence in her career choice or the respect of her peers to bring the same importance to the role that McDormand brought. Perhaps we will see that character’s arc over the season be an evolution into Marge Gunderson, but as constructed, with the pregnancy being transferred to the wife of one of her fellow officers and the warmth of her home nowhere to be found, it is possible Ebert’s premonition is close to accurate.

I'm interested to see how the show veers further and further away from the plot and character of its source material and judging from the clips FX has released for the rest of the season, it does. As the world expands and the plot broadens, it will be easier to avoid searching for one to one ratios and given some of the actors we have yet to see or have seen very little of (Bob Odenkirk, Adam Goldberg, Key and Peele) I expect the show will also find its own sense of humor and its own way to play on its regional specificity. Mostly, by borrowing the title and the accents of a specific and beloved property, the show was always going to be forced to prove how it was going to be different and unique. There is a reason the Coen’s set this story in their native Minnesota and not in a better known city or region: it's what gives the film its comedic heart and its most memorable lines. I hope that the creators of the show use that to their advantage in ways not yet exhibited in the pilot episode, which in some ways could have taken place in any American non-city. What makes Fargo such a beloved property to me is the strangeness and the humor in the dialogue and performances; the complete politeness in the wake of horrible behavior.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.