FARGO Recap: Series Premiere “The Crocodile’s Dilemma”

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Neither part of the term “original adaptation” fully applies to FX’s new limited series Fargo, even if it’s branded as such.It evokes a sense of the original Ethan and Joel Coen film without using the same characters, yet it’s full of callbacks.  There are currently many series on air that tie in with movies: NBC’s Hannibal (a prequel of sorts to Silence of the Lambs), A&E’s Bates Motel (a prequel to Psycho), and even NBC’s comedy About a Boy (like Fargo, it is “inspired” by the world of the movie).  What they have in common is that each series is at its best when its the farthest away from its source material.  Once it becomes its own interpretation of the world it’s using as a base, it gets stronger.  With Fargo, it may take a few episodes for that to develop, but once it does, there’s great potential.  Hit the jump for more.

fargo-recapLike all series adaptations (either from books or movies), there’s the divide between those who know the source material, and those who don’t.  Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s not.  I almost always side on creating a distance between the original work and the television series, but in the case of Fargo, a recent viewing of the film is helpful (it’s currently streaming on Netflix), because the show is stocked with many visual callbacks to the film.  It also helps establish a sense of the tone, one which possibly only the Coen’s can really pull off.

That’s not to say that Noah Hawley (The Unusuals), who wrote and created the television series (and who got the Coens on board) won’t eventually get it right.  But “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” shows that he’s not there yet.  In fact, it took reading a lot of other reviews on the series (from those who have already watched the first four episodes) to make me convinced about continuing.

Let’s hit the positives first: the casting is fantastic.  As the beleaguered Lester Nygaard (a reworked version of William H. Macy‘s Jerry Lundegaard in the film), Martin Freeman – and his very believable American accent — is the crux of the series so far, being the first person who Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is able to corrupt.  Malvo (such names … so Dickensian) is a soft-spoken but dangerous drifter and hit man, with a Rust Cohle-like penchant for philosophical monologue.  But he is essentially a kind of Lucifer figure, seemingly sent to tempt humanity towards evil, and cause chaos in his wake (as Rust might put it: “Darkness, yeah”).  So far, he seems to be doing just what he came for; the residents of Bemidji, starting with Lester, are all too ready to take his nefarious suggestions to heart.

A few of those other (not yet tempted) residents are played by Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) and Keith Carradine (Dexter), and in future episodes, will include Adam Goldberg (2 Days In Paris), Oliver Platt (X-Men: First Class), Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) and many others.  It’s a fantastically deep cast, and one that portends well for the rest of the series (for instance, even in their two small scenes, Odenkirk and Carradine owned their time).

“The Crocodile’s Dilemma” is full of plot and setup, almost a dizzying amount, but its main trajectory is one that seems to set up the question not of whodunnit (because, like the original film, there is not mystery here), but how and why.  Unfortunately (and here is where things start to turn), the premiere’s dragging pace and bleakness (accented by great use of the stark, snowy landscape) make it as slow as a Minnesota winter.

fargo-recapIt’s also disappointing that the female characters on the show are essentially reduced to simpletons and nags, like Lester’s (now deceased) wife, as well as Sam Hess’ widow Gina (Kate Walsh).  Even the seminal role of Marge Gunderson (originally Frances McDormand), paragon of “Minnesota nice” that was portrayed in a way that kept her kind but sharply perceptive, has been cut up and spread out over several roles, from the struggling and naive Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) to the overwhelmed and conflicted Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks).  The lack of a strong female role is the antithesis of the original film, and if FX’s Fargo is trying to replicate its tone, then watering down that factor is a disappointing mistake.

The other issue, when it comes to characterization (all of which are as broad as they can be), “Minnesota nice” starts coming off as backwoods slowness.  Malvo, and deceased Sheriff Verne, were the only two who seemed to have any deeper thoughts.  The others’ simplicity is played for laughs, in a way as broad as a run-of-the-mill broadcast comedy.  It’s an unflattering portrayal, and one that is against the original feel of the film.  There, the sincere niceness was a funny juxtaposition to the immense and visceral violence taking place.

“The Crocodile’s Dilemma” was an interesting start, and it certainly shows a very expanded world for its 10-episode run.  There’s a lot to play with here, dramatically and morally and comedically.  With only a handful of characters yet introduced, there’s even more potential for the series to become a complex web of comedy and consequence.  For now though, “oh jeez.”

Episode Rating: C

fargo-recapMusings and Miscellanea:

– Maybe it took the piling on of Lester’s high school bully Sam, his brother Chaz, and his wife Pearl to show how desperate and pent-up he was that he would resort to a braining, but it was sure slathered on thick.

– “You don’t have the sense God gave a clam” – Motel manager.

– The violence was just as messy as the Coen brothers would have done it: the shotgun wounds, the knife stabbing to the head, the slow trickle of blood from where the hammer hit.  Intense!

– “It’s unsanitory” – Motel manager.

– Martin Freeman is terrific, and even though he has the exact same mannerisms and persona in almost every role he’s in, I love it anyway.

– I’m hoping Molly turns into a stronger character, and that she’s able to put the pieces together as her mentor hoped she would (not just relying on male detectives).

– “I think he might have the autism” – Chaz, about his son Gordo, who draws on the walls and pees in mason jars.  There’s a lot of weirdness in Fargo used as a garnish, which is how it should be.  Sometimes though (like with the brothers and with Gina) it’s a little too much.

– “Well heck!” – Lester.

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  • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

    Strongly disagree with a lot of these points. The pacing worked fine for me because the dark comedy hits so well. I always wanted to know what was around the next corner. Also, while it can draw from the original, it should be tied to it. The notion of “Minnesota Nice” plays differently in a film that’s going for a different objective. The first episode of the series hints at how easily it might be to push someone. It’s a peaceful colony, and when someone like Malvo comes along a kicks the hive, it sets the world on edge. I don’t see rubes. I see innocent people who aren’t yet aware of the chaos coming, much like Lester was under the assumption there were “rules”.

    As for the female characters, I think Tolman could easily be the secret weapon of this series. I found her character charming, she showed thoughtfulness and initiative on her own (she’s the one who connected the two crimes), and I think it could be a really interesting role. It’s like Marge but without the years of experience, which makes for a unique journey.

    I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan and I think the movie is terrific, so it’s not like this was an easy sell for me. But I’m surprised Allison thought the premiere was ho-hum. I think the series hit the ground running by embracing the tone of the original, but pointing it in a new and exciting direction.

    • krstphr

      Yes, this.

    • MJ

      Guys, I’ve been to Fargo on business recently. It just isn’t like that this anymore. Mid-90′s, yes, but not now. The “Fargo” in this series is complete make-believe if it’s suppose to be 2014 there? Nobody dresses like that anymore, the hicks don’t rule anymore, and the people are more sophisticated now. This is complete make-believe.

      • Redjester

        It takes place in 2006, not 2014…

      • Hank Meadows

        Much like the movie, this series takes place in Minnesota, not Fargo. Did you watch the episode?

    • whiskey_river1

      Never agree with Ms. Keene’s reviews. This one is no different.

    • whiskey_river1

      Never agree with Ms. Keene’s reviews. This one is no different.

  • krstphr

    I’m really confused by this review. Fargo is my favorite Coen brothers film. And while this episode felt as though it took place in the same universe as the film, this story seems to be doing something completely different, something that couldn’t have been accomplished in a feature length film. I am very excited about these 10 episodes. Tonight’s premiere was an A.

  • MJ

    The problem with the show is that the depiction of Fargo from the Coen’s movie is completely outdated because of the oil boom. Fargo has grown by 25% in just the last 8 years, and 35% over the last 12 years, with a huge influx of outsiders due to the state’s oil boom. Yet this new series presents it nearly as it was 18 years ago when the Coen’s movie came out — isolated, weird and antisocial. That is just way out of date now, and this series, for anyone who cares, is just some made-up alternate 2014 Fargo that doesn’t really exist.

    • Jimbo

      Valid points from your perspective, but I’m willing to bet that the average viewer (me included) knows absolutely nothing about the population boom you are referring to. I’ve never been to Fargo and don’t particularly have any plans to, so like most people your points don’t have any influence on my opinion of the show. It’s also mentioned in the beginning that the show takes place in 2006, so the population increase isn’t quite what you make it out to be.

      • MJ

        Ah, I missed that 2006 thing…OK, that makes it more reasonable. Thanks

      • Fitzchiv

        none of the first episode took place in fargo

    • Brook

      And the shows Grimm and Portlandia are supposed to be set in the same city. I don’t think either show’s goal is to be 100% accurate to the residents of the city. It’s FICTIONAL ENTERTAINMENT. We simply don’t care if the show portrays it a certain way. Hell, I’m from Atlanta and I don’t get up in arms every time a show depicts southerners as simpletons. The point is that the showrunners sought to create a narrative, one that created a setting true to fact or not, that they believed would make an enjoyable world that their characters and storylines could inhabit.

    • Brook

      And the shows Grimm and Portlandia are supposed to be set in the same city. I don’t think either show’s goal is to be 100% accurate to the residents of the city. It’s FICTIONAL ENTERTAINMENT. We simply don’t care if the show portrays it a certain way. Hell, I’m from Atlanta and I don’t get up in arms every time a show depicts southerners as simpletons. The point is that the showrunners sought to create a narrative, one that created a setting true to fact or not, that they believed would make an enjoyable world that their characters and storylines could inhabit.

    • Leo Spaceman

      I lived in Fargo and went to college in Fargo, but have spent the rest of my life in Minnesota, the good part of Minnesota, up on the Iron Range and these are my people and I get them. I haven’t seen the episode yet, but I can guarantee you these people still exist in Fargo and Northern Minnesota. Yes it is the older crowd in general and the younger people aren’t so much like this, but these guys still exist and the oil boom is on the very far end of North Dakota so there isn’t a huge influx in Fargo from that.

      The thing about Fargo is that it is mostly crime free. Ya there is always the bad people but they are few and far between. The city is as middle class as one can possibly be, so for something weird and something screwed up to happen in Fargo, people are gong to get thrown for a doosy eh.

      I still remember seeing the crowd of people outside a new ‘biker’ restaraunt that just opened up because Charlie Hunnan (Jax, SOA) did a guest appearance at the big opening.

    • Hank Meadows

      Again, have you even watched the Fargo movie or the first episode of the TV series? Only about 2 minutes of the Fargo movie takes place in Fargo, North Dakota. The rest was in Brainerd Minnesota and Minneapolis Minnesota.
      The TV series is set in Bemidji MN and Duluth MN. It sounds like you weren’t really paying attention when you watched the movie and TV show.

  • pickaname

    Wow, this is practically the first “bad” review I’ve read of this show. Now even more curious to check it out.

  • Redjester

    A C?? That episode was nothing short of brilliant! And yet the all-around crappy Agents of Shield gets a B…

  • Daniel O’Reilly

    C!? C!? Really? The heck you mean, Allison? My jaw dropped on a couple of occasions during the episode, but at no time so far as when I saw your rating.

    This was a fantastic premier. After having seen the film a good dozen times or so, it’s a bit surreal at first to watch the show, but once you settle in, it’s an almost note perfect rendition of Fargo. Minnesota Nice is still very much used to contrast with the violence, just in a slightly different way so far. Nygaard is the perfect example. He’s as nice a guy as you could find, but underneath there’s a deep well of anger and frustration, repressed for a lifetime, drawn out by Malvo.

    The film isn’t so mundane as following “the how and why” of the situation; it’s about a small act of desperation that spirals (and spirals) way out of control. The show is more than likely heading along that same trajectory.

    No strong female characters? Give Molly a chance, for pete’s sake. She’s going to be one of the driving forces of the entire story.

  • diazfan209

    C rating is very generous in my opinion. I found it to be corny, slow, and most importantly: not interesting. Nobody forced me to watch it though so I have only myself to blame.

  • LEM

    C rating? were you actually watching the show or did you glance up from your ipad a few times? I thought this was great and I had very low expectations for this series.

  • Royale With Cheese

    This was an excellent start. It felt very close to the movies tone, theme and pace. Billy Bob plays an excellent psychopath and Martin Freeman does a great job as well. The casting was top notch all around. I’m looking forward to seeing how the story unfolds.

    P.S. Nothing quite says impotence like an armory full of rifles and a giant machine gun.

  • http://tarek-to-verso.over-blog.com/ tarek

    Why Fargo ?

    I would have preferred if they had created a new and original universe in a fictional village. This way, we will not keep comparing it with the source every time. It allows also much more freedom while writing the script. We cannot root progressively for a character, knowing from the beginning who is the bad guy and who is the good guy.

    I think that they used the name Fargo just to milk the audience.

    • joeybot

      Tonally it’s the same. And neither the movie nor the series is really set in Fargo at all, does no one pay attention to what they watch??

      Why can’t you root for a character if you know from the beginning if they’re a good or bad guy? Tv shows have been doing this for a long time…The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Justified, etc.

  • Redemption

    The reviewer is way off here. Having only seen Fargo once, I enjoyed the movie a lot but wouldn’t consider myself part of the hardcore fanbase. I had little expectation going into the show, but I gave it a shot. I was blown away. More twists than any premiere I’ve ever seen. Knowing little about the series beforehand really helped since I had no idea where it was going. The fact that it’s a 10 episode series gives it an immediacy you don’t often find in shows. So while the pace is deliberate at times, it’s always exciting and ready to go in a crazy direction.

    The cast- particularly Freeman- give great performances. And while we are probably expected to loath all of these characters eventually, the show makes the situations relatable so that you believe the decisions they make. Don’t let this review persuade you against watching it, as it has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and 87 on Metacritic

  • randommale7

    Though I tend to agree with you Miss Keene in this case I don’t. I though it was a fantastic start to what I’m sure will be a fantastic series, easily B+ or A- for me!

  • mattinacan

    oi, Allison is really bad at this

  • Nick

    I usually agree with Allison’s reviews but I really think she missed the mark on this one, were you watching the same show as everyone else? Awesome first episode of what is sure to be a great show.

  • Michael Ginzburg

    C?? the hack?? at least an A

  • Bhammer100

    Hannibal is a prequel to Red Dragon, the first Hannibal Lecter series.

    Completely disagree with the score. Its an A for sure, you betcha’.

    “Unfortunately (and here is where things start to turn), the premiere’s dragging pace and bleakness (accented by great use of the stark, snowy landscape) make it as slow as a Minnesota winter.” – I live in Minnesota so I like the comparison (it can be very true) but it disagree with the statement.

  • Bhammer100

    Hannibal is a prequel to Red Dragon, the first Hannibal Lecter series.

    Completely disagree with the score. Its an A for sure, you betcha’.

    “Unfortunately (and here is where things start to turn), the premiere’s dragging pace and bleakness (accented by great use of the stark, snowy landscape) make it as slow as a Minnesota winter.” – I live in Minnesota so I like the comparison (it can be very true) but it disagree with the statement.

  • Fitzchiv

    allisons reviews have always been dodgy, she hasnt a clue.

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