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. READ MORE