Murderous funfair ride

Billy Bob Thornton as the roving hitman in the tv series Fargo. (Supplied)

Billy Bob Thornton as the roving hitman in the tv series Fargo. (Supplied)

“This is a true story,” says the on-screen message, untruthfully, at the start of Fargo, just as it did at the start of the 1996 movie on which it is based. “The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2005. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.”

If, like me, you haven’t seen Joel and Ethan Coen’s black comedy masterpiece for a long time, you might also only remember certain things.
Not all the intricacies of the plot, but certainly Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, Steve Buscemi and the wood chipper, but also the look and the feel of the whole thing, maybe even the sound.

You will probably remember how much you loved it too. Which makes watching the TV Fargo – created by Noah Hawley with the blessing of, but no creative input from, the Coens – a strange one.

The story may be different, but so much is either immediately familiar or quickly rejigs the brain: the road, a dark slash through the frozen, white upper Midwest wasteland, squad car pulled over; Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson is a toned-down Gunderson (though it’s not she who’s pregnant); the William H Macy role, the hapless, dissatisfied salesman getting sucked downward into hell, is taken by British actor Martin Freeman because American acting unions now demand that every major United States TV series has at least one Limey (not sure about the accent, Mart, but then I’m not in a position to judge; I’ll leave it to the good folk of Minnesota).

Billy Bob Thornton is the devil, the roving hit man gloriously injecting evil into small-town insularity.

Then there’s the atmosphere, the humour, the hilarious horror. And the themes of human weakness, violence and masculinity; that good men can do bad stuff, and that can be very funny.

There’s something almost dreamlike about the experience of watching it. Like revisiting a favourite old childhood haunt; a funfair, perhaps, because the original Fargo was so joyful. Some of the rides have moved, or been changed or updated but the feel of the place, the look and the sound, the terror and the laughing, is the same. It could have been a terrible idea to return but it’s not, because it’s all coming flooding back, making you remember just why and how much you once loved it.

The new Fargo is also full of joy – the joy of artful claret, bad men, good jokes and good lines (“Chas is working the ham” is my favourite so far – meaning he’s massaging it, grotesquely, to improve the flavour). It’s finely performed (by Tolman and BBT especially). What could have been a disaster, enraging Fargo aficionados, is a respectful homage, and should quench a thirst they had half forgotten they have. What it doesn’t have, of course, is originality. Not just because of Fargo 1.0, but also the Coen’s more recent stuff (there’s something of the Javier Bardem character from No Country for Old Men in Thornton’s hit man) and all the other post-Fargo television that has delved into the murkier reaches of the human mind, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad.

That doesn’t mean there’s not room for more, if it’s good, and so far this is. Plus, as this first episode (of 10) goes on, it appears to be growing – in pace, in confidence, in its own identity. It’s as if Hawley has taken the original and shoved it in the ole wood chipper himself. Now he’s spraying it out on to the frozen white. Same style, same blood, same gory beauty and humour, but something in its own right, too, unique. Hope so. Will I be coming back to see? You betcha. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

Fargo is on M-Net Channel 101 at 9.30pm on Thursdays.

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