Thursday, June 26, 2014

TV Review: Fargo

We seem to live in a Golden Age of Television, so goes the endless refrain from critics. From the late 90s onwards we've seen a steady stream of excellent TV, especially from the United States, that ooze quality in the acting, direction and writing, so much so that we almost take it for granted now. Whats marked a lot of these shows out - poster children like Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos, or Mad Men, is also its sense of darkness, or corruption and moral peril. Modern TV, especially at the "quality" end, is a series of stories of the deep recesses of the human spirit, where victory is fleeting at best and your chance of the good guys winning are slim because you're even sure who the good guys are. It's a bit like mid-80s Doctor Who, only not utterly shit.

Into this landscape, Fargo feels at first like a bit of an oddity, then right at home, and then a bit of an oddity again. It's sort of a remake, sort of a homage, maybe even a little bit of a sequel, to the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, sharing with it a few locations and plot points, as well as the claim that it's based on a true story even though it isn't. That "true story" claim gives it a lot of leeway to wander around a little bit and serve up small vignettes aside from the main narrative, and this conceals a fairly ruthlessly plotted thematic through-line that only starts to become clear towards the end.

So, the story of Fargo starts with put-upon husband Lester (Martin Freeman), a character who becomes less and less likeable as time goes by and his true nature emerges like some truly horrible butterfly. The catalyst for this is his meeting with hitman Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), playing a character who is one of the Coen Brothers great staples; someone who for all intents and purposes is the Devil himself. For the forces of justice we have a neat trick in the show first introducing Vern, who has a pregnant wife in what initially feels like a disappointing gender switch of the movies lead character, before he gets killed and the role falls to Molly (Alison Tolman), the moral centre of the series, and slightly hapless yet decent Gus (Colin Hanks), another cop from out of town.

Surrounding them is a great set of well cast, well drawn characters that the show is content to let drift in and out as the show demands them. Probably most worthy of mention is Bill (Bob Odenkirk) who starts looking like he's one thing but ends being quite another. Its characters like Bill that reveal the true strength of the show; it works very hard to gently unpack it's characters and situations in different and interesting ways, and proves that "nothing is quite what it seems" can be done with depth of writing rather than simply chucking lots of twists around the place.

Fargo also manages to have it's cake and eat it as it runs into the final act, showing a triumph of evil - the sort of the ending that many a cable show would have felt right at home with - and then a final march of decency and humanity. It closes off it's story with a hard-won victory for the good guys, one that doesn't feel like a cliche but something that feels "true" to itself, even if maybe not true to literal events. Without showy twists or shocking denouments (although some pretty shocking moments) it was a constantly surprising, engaging and brilliant show - and probably my TV show of the year so far.