Welcome Back, ‘FARGO’
Movies that get turned into TV shows tend to be a mixed bag. More often than not, they fail to live up to the glory of their cinematic counterparts and end up being forgotten in the bargain bin like The Exorcist and Minority Report series. Occasionally, you get shows like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and From Dusk Till Dawn; shows that decently live up to their cinematic predecessors but somehow fall short from the impact their films made. Rare is when a TV show actually stands up on its own and lives up to the film it’s based on. Fargo is one of those rarities.
Released in 1996, the film the series is based on introduced the Coen brothers’ distinct eccentric style of storytelling to a mainstream audience and immortalized Frances McDormand as one of the greatest performers of her generation and her character Marge Gunderson as one of cinema’s best protagonists. Its absurdist yet deeply dark take on a kidnapping-gone-wrong set in the blinding winter of the Midwest was wildly original, turning genre conventions on its head at every step of the way. Almost 30 years later, the film is now widely regarded as one of the greatest crime films of all time. So when it announced that they were adapting the film for television, eyebrows were understandably raised.
Season one, which premiered in 2014, was about the woeful tale of the meek Lester Nygaard’s descent into corruption and the trail of bodies left behind by his Faustian deal with the devilish Lorne Malvo. At the heart of all the violence was the steadfast yet gentle pairing of Molly Solverson and Gus Grimly, two unlikely officers who take it upon themselves to make sense of all the chaos. The show was funny, dark, well-acted, and most important, really well-written. The series premiered to critical acclaim and ended up amassing more than 200 nominations from awarding bodies all over the world. With so many duds out there, no one ever expected one more TV adaptation of a beloved film to be any good. But Fargo surpassed all expectations and for a while, its success seemed like lightning in a bottle.
The second season proved that its success wasn’t a fluke. It expanded the Fargo formula as it explored more themes, introduced a more varied ensemble of characters, and got bolder and weirder with its storytelling choices. Set in the twilight of the seventies, this time it was about the Gerhardt family and their crime empire at war with itself and a ragtag couple who, as fate would have it, would cross paths with the family in the most unfortunate way possible. Season 2 was hilarious as it was Shakespearean. It had a lot of killing, a lot of betrayals, a lot of laughs, and a lot of heart. It was a masterclass on how to ingeniously push the boundaries of something that was already close to perfection. When Stephen King describes one of the episodes of Season 2 as “the best thing on TV in the last three years,” you know Season 2 means business. And you betcha, it meant business.
A deadbeat parole officer’s plot to steal a childhood stamp from his more successful business-owning twin brother goes sideways, his swindling ex-con girlfriend gets entangled with a sinister international criminal empire and a technologically illiterate officer at the heels of it all. Fargo’s third season may seem like business as usual but it was anything but. The plot was more complex and philosophical. Themes and symbolism were more abstract. Its social commentary was darker than ever. There was a heightened degree of surrealism to the narrative which made the season’s tone more eccentric than usual; the season opens with a wholly unrelated interrogation scene in Berlin, animated vignettes about a lost robot make up half of an episode, and a mythic Jewish apparition played appears throughout. The season didn’t get as much love as its predecessors but in an era of countless cookie-cutter crime shows, Fargo Season 3 still stood out from the pack.
I love Fargo for a lot of reasons. The comic nerd in me loves the worldbuilding in the show; how each season builds on one another and how these decade-spanning midwestern crime stories all connect in some way. I love the cautionary nature it posits; Fargo. in many ways. reminds me of the fables I grew up hearing. Fantastical anecdotes on life, morality, and values with cute animals to represent each and every one of us. With Fargo, it’s the same albeit with lots of violence and crime. I love the simple anthological nature of the show; the accessibility and digestibility it provides audiences with each new season. I love how the show is something me and my grandmother can bond over. Never in a million years did I imagine a show as bloody and hilarious as Fargo would be something to enjoy with a 78-year old woman. Ultimately, I love the show because it’s simply a great show. And like the film before it, what truly makes Fargo a fantastic piece of fiction are the creatives and talent behind it. Showrunner Noah Hawley and his band of like-minded writers have crafted a show that unapologetically carries the spirit of the film. The show proudly wears its namesake on its sleeve, compounding every quirky strand of the film’s DNA to tell Fargo’s story in a new way for a new generation of media.
The characters the actors bring to life feel like worthy extensions of those characters in the film: Marge Gunderson, Jerry Lundegaard, Carl Showalter, and Gaear Grimsrud. Cast members like Billy Bob Thorton, Martin Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead imbue so much life to the eccentric characters they inhabit and all perform at a level on par with McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance. And that’s not to mention the supporting characters that help realize this world. Nick Offerman’s role as the verbal-jousting drunk lawyer stole the show in Season 2. Season 1 had Bob Odenkirk playing a dim-witted police chief. And of course, Ray Wise as the Wandering Jew of Season 3 was a highlight for Season 3.
For this upcoming fourth season, I’m not quite sure what to expect. I haven’t seen any trailer save for the first one they put out in the pandemic nor have I fully been caught up with the who, what, and where of Season 4’s premise. It’s easy to set one’s self up with immensely high expectations especially with Fargo, a show that has been consistently good throughout the years so with Season 4, I’m keeping an open eye and mind. It’s always a pleasure to revisit the wild midwest the Coen brothers and Noah Hawley created. I cannot wait to see it return this Sunday.