I admit to being part of a sizable public posse who avoided TV’s Fargo like a plague, or at least some suspicious cultural rash. We avid fans of the Coen Brothers’ darkly comic yet disarmingly elegant gothic crime saga on the big screen might have smelled exploitation and sad opportunism, regardless of the glowing reviews and insistence that this new TV progeny was both of itself and respectful of the mothership. But I ask you, how could anything replace the film’s crisp yet layered dimensions, dark comic twists, and memorable characters — the indomitable cool of detective Frances “you betcha!” McDormand, the in-over-his-head frantics of plot-launcher William F. Macy, or the virtuosic sinister sleaziness of Steve Buscemi?
Finally and belatedly, however, I have seen the light, and the third season currently underway is a grubby cool charm of generous proportions. Most importantly, the transition from large to small screen is not exactly a diminution or watering down of the treasured host film, but an expansion therefrom to a larger canvas (or canvases — each season being its own creation). The “small”-screen Fargo relies on what’s good about television, especially in the New TV era, with its fluidity of narrative design and freedom to riff (as long as the cancelation hobgoblin is kept at bay).
While all of a piece and with various tendrils back to the Coen Bros’ vision (they serve as executive producers), each season of TV’s Fargo is a separate work, with a different cast, different era, and different sordid tale to tell, but always some connection to both the original film — and the good, flat, mythic land of Minnesota (the Coens’ home turf) as a common ground. In Season 3, the particulars include a dual role played (with a decent but self-acknowledged quirk of a Minnesota accent) by Ewan McGregor, who, like Zach Galifianakis in the goofily loveable Baskets, plays two diverse brothers. One McGregor is a parking lot magnate, suddenly running afoul of some loathsome criminal types — just as Macy’s character quickly escalated into a malevolent underworld — led by one of the screen’s scariest people, David Thewlis (think back to his unconscionable character in Mike Leigh’s Naked). The other McGregor is a much-less-hygiene-conscious, bumbling parole officer who hooks up with a beautiful, manipulative woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and is himself drawn into criminal scheming, revolving around a valuable stamp in his brother’s possession. From that basic premise, the season — essentially an episodic 10-hour film — is off and running and detouring, with McDormand cop surrogate Carrie Coon steady and spidery on the case.
Certain Coen-esque hooks in the story will naturally jump out for infamy. In the cinema’s Fargo, we had the grisly wood-chipper scene (more grisly by implication than explicitness, like the bear-trap scene in Straw Dogs). In Season 3, a certain ex-con — with a fascinating backstory, suitable for one episode’s detective work — meets his grisly end via “misadventure by modern appliance,” as in an air-conditioning unit shoved out of a high apartment window, a winking nod to the old cartoony trope of dangerous falling anvils and grand pianos. When the greasy-haired McGregor tells his fiancée, “I gotta be honest — I got some remorse,” about the killing, she deflects his feelings, dismissing their victim as an “unfathomable pinhead.” That’s entertainment!
Other Coen-ish touches are embedded in TV’s Fargo, including a juicy role for Coen alum Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man), dimensions of visual awareness and clever camera work not often seen even on the “New TV,” and a keen, surprising use of music. Suddenly, Tuvan throat singers arise during a bungling crime scene, and episode four is craftily designed around the instrument-identifying musical tactic of Peter and the Wolf. Is there a high level of creative firepower and drollery going on here? You betcha!