Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fargo (Season 1) TV review

It's summer, which means that I can finally catch up on some TV shows that I've wanted to watch for some time now. One of those shows is FX's Fargo, which began airing in April. Even though I had never watched the Coen Brothers' movie, which the show is based off of, Fargo still seemed to be right up my alley. And after watching all ten episodes of the show, I can say that I was right. I'm not a huge fan of television, but the first season of Fargo was brilliant. It takes the anthology model of True Detective and American Horror Story to tell a compelling crime story that has a beautiful, dark setting, interesting characters and a story that is suspenseful until the final episode. Fargo is gritty, yet darkly comic TV from beginning to end. It's one of the best TV shows I've ever seen and it gets even better- the show has a definitive ending. This review will give a synopsis of the show and end with my thoughts on the acting, the production values and the show overall.

*Warning*- Spoilers for season 1 of Fargo will follow. I'm pretty much gonna break down the entire show here. If you haven't watched the show already, go do that right now.

Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is a vicious hitman with no moral compass. He's practically the devil incarnate. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a mild-mannered insurance salesman with a tumultuous home life. Molly (Alison Tolman) is an intelligent cop in a town full of naive idiots who think that nothing bad can ever happen. These three characters guide the entire show and you see the events unfold through their eyes. Other characters include Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a good cop who screws up and spends the rest of the series trying to make up for what he did wrong. Also, there's Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt), the Minnesota businessman who hires Malvo to find the person who's been blackmailing him. There are many more characters, but these are the most essential ones to the first few episodes.

Fargo is very much a character-based drama, but there's also a very strong plot at the center of this series. Essentially, Lorne Malvo is a drifter who wanders into the town of Bemidji, MN after accidentally letting one of his targets go. Malvo and Lester Nygaard cross paths in the room of a hospital after Nygaard is beaten by Sam Hess, a local bully. Malvo asks Lester if he would like it if Hess was killed and Lester doesn't quite give a definitive answer. Malvo kills Hess and that starts a chain of events that cannot be stopped. Eventually, Lester's wife and the police chief of Bemidji are dead in Lester's house and the investigation into the murders begins. The new chief of police, Bill (Bob Odenkirk), doesn't believe that Lester had anything to do with it, but Molly certainly does. Meanwhile, Malvo is dodging two hitmen (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard) who have come to hunt him after same Hess' murder. And at the same time, Malvo is also trying to manipulate businessman Stavros Milos and his blackmailer Chumph. All of these various plots collide over the course of this ten-episode anthology series, which is just an absolute pleasure to watch.

I've never been one of those people that is constantly saying that TV is better than film. It most certainly isn't and most of the stuff on TV is pure crap. However, I have no hesitation in saying that if Fargo counted as one long ten-hour movie, it would be one of my favorite movies of the year. This series is a pure joy from start to finish. It constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat, but the dark sense of humor is also prevalent. In addition to that, the performances and the characters are great and there's a full arc for each important character. The setting and the score also add a lot to this series. Pretty much everything is perfect. Fargo, simply put, is one of the best shows that I've ever seen. It's just fantastic TV from the premiere to the finale.

Fargo is a show that sucked me in immediately. The writers really knew that they needed to hook people in with a stunning first episode and they really do that well. It's an incredibly gutsy pilot. Most series premieres will simply introduce you to the characters and maybe give you a hint of where the plot is going. Fargo's pilot episode introduces us to most of the characters and the general plot, but the episode also does something entirely unexpected. The first episode sees the demise of three important characters. This is a show that kills off three characters in its opening episode. And each character death impacts the rest of the series. Most shows would wait to kill off three major characters, but Fargo does it right off the bat. In addition to that, the episode is so effective because it is shocking and visceral. From the start of the episode, you know one character is going to die, but one of the most shocking scenes I had seen all year on a screen was when Lester killed his wife. It's brutal, witty and completely unexpected. The violence in the first episode really gives you a feel for the show and the rest of the series works off of the terrific pilot episode. If the first episode of Fargo wasn't so brilliant, the show might not work quite as well.

You can't comment on Fargo without discussing the acting. It's simply outstanding across the board. Billy Bob Thornton is undoubtedly the star of the show and his performance is indescribably good. His character is one of the most twisted and evil that has ever been put on screen and Thornton's frightening, amusing performance is what makes this character work. Malvo is one of the greatest TV villains ever and is a character that I will never forget. Martin Freeman also turns in a spectacular performance as the misguided insurance salesman Lester Nygaard. Lester is a nice guy who truly "breaks bad" and by the end of the show, he's just as much of a deplorable human being as Malvo. This is a guy who kills his wife and then sends his second wife to her death. Pretty disgusting. Freeman's performance is so good because you almost want Lester to get away with it. That's a testament to both Freeman and the screenwriters because they manipulate the emotions so well. It's awesome.

Alison Tolman also gives a breakout performance as the stubborn Molly, who knows her facts and will stick with her gut. Molly has to go up against a bunch of idiots who are so naive that they believe their childhood friends can do nothing wrong and Tolman portrays Molly's drive really well. Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard also have some great scenes as the two bumbling hitmen who are sent to find and kill Malvo. Bob Odenkirk is also a lot of fun as the world-weary, optimistic cop who pretty much believes that nothing bad can happen. Colin Hanks proves that he's a star in the making as Gus, the kind of nice guy that we all can relate to. Keith Carradine is also pretty solid as Molly's father/moral support. And finally, comedians Key and Peele are relatively funny as FBI agents, who essentially double as red-shirt Star Trek characters. In general, this is a stellar cast filled with offbeat, awesome performances.

The setting of this series has a lot of appeal to me as a person, so the fact that I loved this show isn't necessarily surprising. Small-town Minnesota just seems like the perfect place to set a crime series for some reason and the execution is great. Also, the technical aspects are very, very good. There's an awesome shot of the outside of a building when Malvo eliminates the Fargo syndicate that is simply awe-inspiring. The musical score is also hauntingly great and it has stayed with me weeks after I finished the show.

The cast is great and the technical aspects are brilliant, but this show is elevated to another level by the writers. This is an exciting show from start to finish. No character is ever out of danger and nobody ever feels safe. Everything is on the table and characters are killed without mercy or without question. Fargo is an odd show at times because it's so cold, calculating and matter-of-fact, but it's also so engaging emotionally. You can really invest in these central characters (except for Malvo), but at the same time, the show treats many of the small characters as cannon fodder. It's a really interesting dynamic that makes for an interesting watch.

The future of TV really lies with the anthology series, which is what Fargo is. I've never managed to get invested in a multi-season series simply because it seems so daunting to watch all the episodes. However, Fargo is essentially a miniseries. It allows you to really get to know the characters, but there is a definitive conclusion. There's no way that this story can continue. I wouldn't be surprised to see Molly and Gus return for the next miniseries, but there's no way that some of these characters can return.

Let's talk about the last few episodes. After Malvo kills Milos' son and partner along with one of the hitmen
sent to kill him, he escapes and takes out the Fargo syndicate. After that, he disappears. Meanwhile, Molly is in the hospital because Gus accidentally shot her and Lester is on the run from the hospital. All of a sudden, the show jumps ahead an entire year. This is a smart move. We learn that one year later, Lester is married to an insurance salesman named Linda Park and that he is soon going to be salesman of the year. We also learn that Gus and Molly are engaged and that Molly is pregnant. And finally, we learn that Malvo is disguised as a dentist now and is engaged to a popular socialite. All of this changes when Lester approaches Malvo in Vegas.

Malvo and Lester argue for a while before Malvo decides to kill all three of his new friends and send Lester running back to Bemidji. Lester and his wife Linda head back to Bemidji before deciding to leave for Mexico. This is when the show gets really dark. Lester knows that Malvo has followed him and will be inside his store, so he sends in his wife to get something. He sends his wife to her death. Malvo kills her and Lester escapes again. It's a despicable move that killed any sympathy I had left for Lester. After that I knew he had to die.

And he does. Throughout the season finale, Lester dodges bullet after bullet and Malvo even bites the dust before him (at the hands of Gus). However, Lester runs out of time and ends up falling through a patch of thin ice in Montana. It's a sad, tragic moment that feels almost Shakespearean in quality. All in all, I was very happy with the way things were wrapped up for this series and I was especially happy that the two most despicable characters were done away with and that Molly became chief. It's just a brilliant ending to a brilliant series.

I just loved Fargo so much. From beginning to end, this is a smart, compelling, and entertaining TV series that will leave you wanting much more. The acting, the music, the setting, the writing, the directing- everything is absolutely perfect. I cannot wait for season 2. Just plain awesome.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                              (10/10)

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