It’s not impossible to turn a movie into a good TV show. But for every M*A*S*H, there are a dozen Baby Talks. (C’mon, you remember Baby Talk, the ill-fated sitcom based on Look Who’s Talking. Great idea, world.) Movies are stories and stories have arcs—beginnings, middles, and ends. Expanding on one can feel unnecessary, plus it smacks of greed and laziness, like a bunch of fat, mustache-twirling execs are smoking cigars in a boardroom somewhere, plotting ways to profit off something’s existing popularity.
Adapting a nearly 20-year-old film doesn’t necessarily carry those gross connotations, but I was suspicious of FX’s Fargo all the same. More in a “who the hell do you think you are” kind of way. What sacrilegious overachiever was like, “Hey, guys, you know that multi-Oscar-winning modern masterpiece featuring one of the best-written female characters in film history and some of the greatest performances in recent memory? I’m gonna make it into a TV show, yeah? Gooooood.”
Having finally watched the premiere episode—episode two is on tonight at 9 PM—I feel like there’s good news to report about TV’s go at Fargo. For one thing, it’s not an adaptation. It’s a different story in the style of Fargo. They’ve kept a strong female lead character in a cop uniform, lots of heavily accented “Aw, jeezes,” and residents of the frozen heartland pushing the boundaries of acceptable human conduct with disastrous consequences. In the film, money motivates all of the crime and killing. On the show, it’s more ambiguous. A bullied, browbeaten insurance salesman named Lester Nygaard—a Jerry Lundegaard-type played by bite-size British actor Martin Freeman—violently kills his wife after being encouraged to stand up for himself by a murderous stranger played by Billy Bob Thornton.
“Hitting” is thematic in the first episode. If someone hits you, you should hit them back. If someone insults you, you should hit them—or, if the opportunity arises, have a “hit man” do the “hitting” for you. Thornton’s character, Lorne Malvo, is a devil who hops from shoulder to shoulder, whispering terrible ideas into the ears of anyone who’ll listen. His motivation? Good old-fashioned sociopathy.
It’s violent and funny, and it sets up female police officer Molly Solverson (relative newcomer Allison Tolman) to become a bigger part of the story in the future. And then there’s Funniest Man in the World, Bob Odenkirk, as a hapless cop who vomits at the sight of blood. So, yeah, it’s way better than Baby Talk.