One of the most famous thought experiments in philosophy is something called the ship of Theseus. An ancient Greek warship is preserved as a monument, and as its planks rot, they are replaced, one by one, until none of the original wood remains. Is it still the same ship?
A similar question arises when watching Fargo, an FX miniseries that premiered on April 15. It’s based, of course, on the 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, perhaps their best-loved work. The movie tells the story of a henpecked loser of a car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, who hires two violent criminals to kidnap his wife (then tries to keep the ransom from his father-in-law), and of Marge Gunderson, the extremely pregnant police chief who solves the crime after it goes bloodily awry. The TV show is likewise about a loser salesman, some out-of-town crooks, and a dogged female cop. But you won’t see any of the actual characters or events from the film. Until the appearance of a mysterious briefcase, there’s nothing to suggest both stories even exist in the same universe.
But the show still feels like Fargo. There are sudden murders, bulky parkas, bungled plots, Minnesota accents, dimwits, psychopaths, moments of absurdist humor, and lots of blood-stained snow. The salesman in the series, Lester Nygaard (played by English actor Martin Freeman), sells insurance, not cars. Molly Solverson, the cop played by Allison Tolman, isn’t the chief, and she’s not pregnant—but the chief’s wife is. There’s a bickering pair of hit men from Fargo, N.D., but their roles aren’t central. It’s as if someone described the film and got every detail wrong.
The concept was born out of MGM’s desire to get more of its movie properties onto television, and the goal was to franchise Fargo without remaking it. According to Noah Hawley, the show’s creator, FX asked him to make his own Coen masterpiece. “The challenge was to sit down and think, ‘Well, what made that movie that movie? And what makes a Coen brothers movie unique?’ ” he says. The actual Coen brothers were not involved: They read the script, liked it enough to add their names as producers, then did nothing else.
Even without star directors, most actors turn in solid performances. Billy Bob Thornton plays Lorne Malvo, a smart, sadistic hit man who has a lot of fun at everyone else’s expense, either by mocking them, ruining their lives, or both. Tolman, a newcomer, is convincing as Deputy Solverson. So is Bob Odenkirk, who plays her colleague, a dim, petty deputy. Most of the other characters seem plucked from elsewhere in the Coen-iverse: There’s a boorish retail magnate who’s a lot like Nathan Arizona from Raising Arizona and a devious but stupid personal trainer like Brad Pitt’s character in Burn After Reading.
The problem with making a TV show based explicitly on other people’s work is that it invites comparisons. By that standard, the TV show suffers, even though Hawley is an astute student of the Coen style. “You have to be open to mixing all of these elements of drama and comedy and violence and crime and a bit of the absurd and a bit of mysticism and some philosophy thrown in,” he says. “And then really making it about the characters, because the most important thing in a Coen brothers movie is never the plot.” It’s very hard to get that mix just right, it turns out, and the show hasn’t yet. Thornton’s hit man is prone to issuing threats in the form of riddles and disquisitions, but they make him sound less like an unhinged mastermind and more like a stoned undergraduate.
And yet, at the end of four episodes, the hook is set. I need to know whether Lester and Lorne get away with what they’ve done. I bet they won’t. In the Fargo of my mind, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward bloody retribution.