‘Fargo’ strikes right absurdist tone

fargo billy bob thornton

One of the most pleasant surprises at the movies in 1996 was “Fargo,” the Joel and Ethan Coen movie about cops and crime in Minnesota.

But if you’d asked me if the movie would provide fodder for a TV series 18 years later, I would have scoffed. Politely, of course. We are talking about “Minnesota Nice” here.

But “Fargo” the TV series on FX is a surprise that’s similarly pleasant to the Coen Brothers movie. It’s a little weird and a little funny and really promising.

“Fargo” is part of a genre of stories about offbeat people in offbeat towns that stretches back past “Twin Peaks” – and the current Twitter revival of that 1990s show – and encompasses more police-oriented series like “Justified.” “Fargo” and “Twin Peaks” share some DNA with the “Welcome to Nighvale” podcast. All of which is fodder for a future entry.

But for now, “Fargo” has the market on small-town neighborly mayhem cornered.

The series isn’t a continuation or expansion, really, of the movie. There are some familiar settings and characters, but there’s a big difference: The central antagonist in the series appears to be Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo, a man who arrives in the town of Bemidji, Minnesota with a man locked in the trunk of his car. After an accident and the captive’s short-lived escape, Malvo settles in Bemidji. Much to Bemidji’s misfortune.

That’s because Malvo spreads chaos and discontent wherever he goes. Besides the odd haircut and facial hair, Malvo appears to be something of a devil, quietly suggesting to people that they take some action that turns out to be ill-advised. It’s not until the second episode that we get a good idea of what Malvo is all about.

In the spirit of Jerry Lundegaard, the Bemidji businessman played by William H. Macy in the movie, the series introduces us to Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman of “Sherlock” and “The Hobbit” fame, a put-upon businessman who makes some crucial mistakes, including the bludgeoning death of his wife.

That murder propels other incidents, including the death of the police chief at Malvo’s hands. It’s the push that prompts the Frances McDormand surrogate in the series, Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) to begin investigating. It’s likely that Solverson will at some point collaborate with Officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), an over-cautious cop who has an early run-in with Malvo.

In the first two episodes, “Fargo” has become populated with characters who, we intuit, will pay off before the season is over. They include Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard as another couple of menacing strangers in town and Oliver Platt as a crass local supermarket chain magnate whose dilemma, we learn, brought Malvo to town.

Keith Carradine is present for low-key wisdom as Solverson’s father and Jordan Peele (of Key and Peele) is due to show up at some point.

As unlikely as “Fargo” seemed to be for a TV series prospect, the show is entertaining and intriguing so far. I’m looking forward to what the pride of Bemidji does next.

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