Tripwire continues its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. Counting down to its first choice at the end, here’s its 10th entry, FX’s Fargo…
Creator: Noah Hawley
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Martin Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart, Ted Danson
It would be hard to think of a better spinoff series in television history than Noah Hawley’s Fargo. Based on and thematically linked to the Coen Brothers’ 1996 movie starring Frances McDormand, its aim throughout its four loosely linked series was to construct a hidebound, unforgiving netherworld based in certain northern U.S. states where many of the players are pawns, perpetually undercut and buffeted by fate, external factors and their own demons. In certain ways each of the four stories transcend the original film, with the desperation, black humour and lack of control marking the anthology as darker, more hostile and underpinned by nihilism.
Not that each entry is bereft of sympathetic, point of view characters. All have a Cassandra-like lead, similar to McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, who is both the focal point of the story yet remains peripheral, unable to stop bloody and excessively violent events or conspiracies from playing out. In season 1, based in Minnesota, Alison Tolman’s Deputy Molly Solverson, like Gunderson, is continually gaslighted by Martin Freeman’s insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, who himself has been manipulated into murder and deception by the series’ demon, hitman Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). Thornton’s Malvo, unlike Buscemi’s feeble misshape in the movie, is a career-defining portrait of unbridled and gleefully sadistic evil – a banal, mechanical force of nature who rains misery, death and destruction on everyone who wanders into his orbit. Throughout the ten episodes, both villains contrive to escape capture, while Malvo’s actions invoke biblical retribution, sneering contempt for humanity and bleak, unmitigated terror.
There is a great deal of symbolism, Easter eggs, and hidden clues lurking throughout season one, in a tale that evokes Hitchcock, Lovecraft and hardboiled detective fiction. Such stylings were inevitably to lead to a strong and committed fan base dedicated to the show. These devices were ratcheted up even further in season 2, focusing on a couple (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst) who become enmeshed in a gang war between the rural, archaic Gerhardt family from Fargo, led by Jean Smart’s Floyd, and the corporate invaders of the Kansas City mafia, represented by Brad Garrett (Joe Bulo) and Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine). Caught betwixt and between is the young State Patrolman Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), the father of season one’s protagonist, and Sherriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson).
Definitely the best of the series, the disintegration of the Gerhardts, the politics inherent in the Kansas City machine and the ‘70s small town flakiness are a potent brew of dislocation, weirdness and immersive, seismic violence. There is so much here to take in, with every member of the ensemble given a chance to develop, yet at no point does Hawley and the production team’s reach exceed their grasp. Wilson’s Solverson is perfectly drawn, a study of a young man already weighed down by life who stoically walks the trail that leads to the bloodbath referred to in season one, while Woodbine’s quirky, enigmatic Milligan is equally fascinating. However it would be a disservice not to mention the rest of the cast, who are all superb.
What both series feature, along with seasons three and four, is an attempt to further and enhance the crime genre, its heady brew of brutality, ruthlessness and survivalism matched by some brilliant scripting, characterization and performances. In both the later series, doomed characters compellingly explain their philosophies to camera, unloading their fears and anger, illustrating in each what makes these corners of reality tick while providing a subtext about the fault lines and relentless shifts that a mercurial country like America is forced to contend with. Aside from this is the detached wit and humour, the fastidious attention to period detail and the ability to mesh themes and subplots into one superbly cohesive whole. Life is expedient in Coen World, even more than in The Sopranos, yet the series brings something tangibly unique, relatable and evocative of mythical America to long form television. This is ground-breaking TV to be experienced – and one of the very best shows of the last twenty years.
Fargo is on Netflix in the UK and on Amazon Prime in the US now