sat 18/05/2024

Fargo, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Fargo, Channel 4

Fargo, Channel 4

Brilliant start to tellyfication of the Coen brothers classic

A big hand for the little guy: Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard

There's always room on top for another TV anti-hero. After Tony Soprano, Breaking Bad's Walter White and Mad Men's fatally flawed Don Draper, here's Martin Freeman as Fargo's Lester Nygaard, a downtrodden failure of a husband as well as a second-rate insurance salesman. It could have been worse - they could have made him a journalist or an estate agent.

Freeman has quietly blossomed into the little guy who could, a seemingly innocuous presence who's suddenly capable of holding up his end of the screen against all-comers however stellar, whether it's Benedict Cumberbatch or Sir Ian McKellen. In this first of 10 parts, in which writer/creator Noah Hawley has taken the framework of the 1996 Coen brothers movie and filled it out with a new story and different characters, Freeman's Nygaard was pitched against Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo (Scandi names being pretty cool these days), and he didn't come off second-best.

They first met in a hospital waiting room in the uncelebrated, snow-covered Minnesota town of Bemidji, after Malvo (pictured right) had banged his head in a car accident and Nygaard had collided with a plate glass window. Malvo asked Nygaard what happened. Nygard explained he'd been picked on by the oafish Sam Hess, who used to bully him at school and now runs a trucking company. "I would have killed that man," murmured Malvo.

Turns out Malvo is a contract killer, and Thornton plays him with a distilled, implacable deadliness reminiscent of the monstrous Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (another Coens milestone), with maybe a garnish of Clint Eastwood's high plains drifter. It isn't long before Sam Hess is found in a whorehouse with a knife sticking out of his neck.

Somehow, as Malvo later observes with supernatural insightfulness, the death of Hess has made the downtrodden Nygaard more of a man than he was previously. "You spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren't," he points out. Certainly events have released something within Nygaard's repressed psyche, but rather than experiencing a Breaking Bad-style urge to boil up the world's finest crystal meth he reacts with a more visceral lust for vengeance against a lifetime of belittlement. After all, this is a guy who's even told by his much more successful brother Chaz that "sometimes I tell people you're dead."

All the little barbs and insults suddenly become overwhelming. It's his disastrous attempt to repair the household washing machine, after much sarcastic goading from his contemptuous wife Pearl, that tips him over the edge. Unluckily for Pearl there's a hammer in Lester's toolbag, which he's soon wielding with frenzied abandon.

This unleashes a chain reaction of startling violence, though the newly-liberated Nygaard has the wit to give himself an alibi by knocking himself out to make it look as if he has suffered a bloody home invasion. However, local policewoman Molly Solverson (Allison Toleman, pictured left), who's inherited the Marge Gunderson mantle from Frances McDormand in the movie, has been showing flashes of true-detective insight which have placed both Nygaard and Malvo on the law enforcement radar.

This was a brilliant opening episode that hit the ground at a sprint, and the next nine episodes have instantly become mandatory viewing. I'm still trying to work out why on earth Radio Times billed it as Comedy of the Week, though. 


I hate to give up on anything so early in, but having watched and thoroughly enjoyed the film numerous times, this just feels painful! I don't even think that the fabulous Billy Bob Thornton (and ooh a glimmer of light in the shape of Bob Odenkirk) can save this for me. Maybe things will move on from what seems like a string of well-shot, pastiche comedy skits after episode 1, but I really don't think I have the stomach to find out. I wanted to like this, I really did, but it just irritated the heck out of me.

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