Fargo starring Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton – review

The spirit of the classic film is alive and well in the new Coen Brothers' TV series which comes to Channel 4 on Sunday April 20 at 9pm

SPOILERS WARNING: This preview of episode one of Fargo contains some plot spoilers from the episode. If you don’t want to know about some of what happens then stop reading now….


“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

So opened the Oscar winning movie Fargo back in 1996. But how do you make a TV series out of a much-loved cult classic that, quite possibly, a fair number of your viewers may not have even seen?

Well you open the TV series with the same brilliant words that opened the film, only changing the date. Oh yes, and you capture the excitement and feel of this classic blend of violence and folksy charm (so-called Minnesota nice) into this very satisfying whole. This really is very good.

What writer Noah Hawley and the Coens (executive producers) have done is capture the feel of the movie and expand it into a gripping long-runner that will evoke comparisons with the best.

Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard – a failed insurance salesman thrust into a world of criminality that he doesn’t expect – is obviously inspired by William H Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard from the film. But there is also a welcome echo of more recent classics, with Breaking Bad being the most obvious.

In Lester’s case, his first brush with violent crime comes after he has his nose broken by his old school bully and a chance encounter in A+E sees him talking to Billy Bob Thornton’s diabolic drifter Lorne Malvo.

Ah, Billy Bob Thornton. What a brilliant actor. And yet this has to still rank as one of his best performances, albeit one dominated by quite the worst haircut in TV history. Imagine the one sported by Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber only – somehow – a bit worse. But unlike Christmas he is a hired killer who tricks Lester into agreeing to have his bully killed, setting both Lester and the drama on a roller coaster ride where we are not sure where we will get off.

How the team maintain the excitement over the next nine episodes is anyone’s guess, because it is hard to imagine the body count average continuing. But so far it is brilliant.

Freeman is superb  – confused and endearing as Lester, he has always been very good as the Everyman’s Everyman. But just as his John Watson in Sherlock hints at a man who has seen and done some pretty tough things as an army medic, here Freeman also makes us persistently aware of the violent anger that Malvo teases out. It is a tricky acting job performed with skill and precision.

Still, Thornton edges the laurels. His Malvo is a very particular – and very frightening – agent of doom, destruction and mayhem wherever he goes, often in scenes of comic brilliance.

But what are his motives? This is the troubling bit. He hints at a kind of demonic justice, but often his troublemaking seems like a way getting people to show their dark side. He is just – what? Perverse? A scene in which he winds up an odd job guy in his motel after the boss speaks down to him is funny – but when he snitches on the odd job guy as he gets his (hilarious) revenge we see that Malvo simply wants to cause trouble for its own sake. TV has never really seen anyone like him, someone who makes us laugh, squirm, recoil, but also ask profound questions about the randomness and cruelty of life. He is not someone to cross – or meet. And this is clearly going to be Lester’s tragedy.

As Molly Solverson, the homespun cop role played so brilliantly by Frances McDormand in the film version of Fargo, Allison Tolman brings some light to all the darkness. Like McDormand’s Marge she is also smart and episode one sets things up nicely for her to hunt down Malvo and Lester.

The landscape is incredibly reminiscent of the film – with all those cold afternoons, long nights and bleak mornings, it is almost a character in itself. As with the film, you can almost feel the chill on your fingers.

But enough from me. Except to say that right now I need a really brilliant drama series to get my teeth into and here it is. So, with Sky+ at the ready I urge you to come on for the ride….

Fargo airs on Channel 4 on Sunday April 20 at 9pm