The lives of several people in Minnesota, including a sardonic hit man, a put-upon insurance salesman, and an eager policewoman, intersect amidst a series of lies and murders.
Who in their right mind would ever try making a Coen-less spin-off to one of Joel and Ethan Coen's most classic films? This seems like one of the worst ideas ever conceived, but thanks to television producer John Cameron, showrunner/writer Noah Hawley, and a refreshingly creative freedom granted by cable network FX, that idea has resulted in one of the very television series ever created.
Being a lover of all things the Coen Brothers direct, I was worried to see what would be done with 'Fargo,' their 1996 Academy Award-winning black comedy, in the hands of non-Coens. Although DVR'd from the beginning, I put off watching it until nearly all of the ten-episode first season had aired – but when I worked up the nerve to actually give it a shot, I was stunned. Without feeling like a Coen Brothers knock-off that relies solely on mimicking their originality and style, it feels like a companion piece that captures the spirit of what makes the Coen Brothers so good, all the while being entirely its own thing. By the end of a couple quick binge-watching sessions, I caught myself uttering something that I, as a Coen Brother die-hard fan, would have highly criticized anyone else for saying before then: the television adaptation of 'Fargo' just might be better than film.
The film kicks off with a wonderfully misleading title card. Just as the movie did, each episode begins with a variation it. "This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota... . At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred." This false precedent sets a great tone to each episode. Not at all based on a true story, the series is also chock full of a wide array of colorful characters that end up wildly and unpredictably knotted in twisted turns of events. Just when you think you might know where the story is going, it flips everything on its head, shatters your beliefs and throws you off.
The catalytic character of the first season is Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), an insecure husband and insurance salesman who can't tolerate his life anymore. Bullied by his younger brother, his wife, and even the same guys who bullied him through school, the slightest amount of encouragement from a contracted killer (Billy Bob Thornton) gives him the drive to think that he's empowered and justified in doing whatever it takes to stand up for himself. The horrible actions committed by Lester and Thornton's character, Lorne Malvo, create a whirlwind of problems. Not-so-naive, pure in intent, and with a moral compass pointed due north, officer Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) stumbles into the case. Surrounded by stereotypically air-headed "don't ya know" officers (including one played by Bob Odenkirk), Molly is the smartest lead on the case and the only seemingly capable one who stands a chance of piecing the oddball story together. Other noteworthy supporting cast member include Colin Hanks, Keith Carradine, Adam Goldberg, Glenn Howerton, Rachel Blanchard, Oliver Platt and "Key & Peele."
The first season is set many years after the events of the film 'Fargo,' but connections are made between the two – some obvious, some not-so-obvious. Paying homage to the Coens, there are countless embedded and often times hidden Easter Eggs to various other Coen Brother films. The more you know their canon, the more you'll enjoy the subtle references and witty connections.
If you're a lover of either the Coen Brothers or the current "Golden Age" of television, then 'Fargo' is a must-see.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Fargo' hits Blu-ray with a special limited time packaging that, so far as I can tell, is still available. Included with the three-disc Region A BD-50 discs and the blue Elite keepcase is an outer windowed cardboard box that also holds a 'Fargo' beanie. (If you ever saw Mondo's "ugly Fargo sweater," then the beanie matches the pattern.) For lovers of the film and/or series, this edition is highly worth seeking out.
'Fargo: The Complete First Season' has been given a superb 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Shot on Arri Alexa digital cameras, the imagery is clear, crisp and smooth. Being shot like a 10-hour movie, the style and feel is highly cinematic. Sharp details are almost always abundantly visible. Facial features – pores, stubble, wrinkles, etc – are blatantly evident.
The distinct look of 'Fargo' includes a desaturated palette. While colors are present, they don't pop like they would in real life. Colors are muted. The results sucks the life out of fleshtones and generates a very cold – and very fitting – feeling that's used quite often in outdoor settings. Without a trace of crushing, black levels are solid, deep and rich. They're used effectively. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, whites are exuberantly bright. Snowy fields can appear as textureless blinding white blankets.
No noise, bands, aliasing or artifacts are present.
'Fargo' carries a wonderful 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The first thing to kick in and catch attention in the series is the score. Jeff Russo's theme track is grand and sweeping. Music can swell at a moment's notice – but Russo and the sound team know when silence can be just as impactful. Many scenes carry minimal sound, forcing your attention to focus on the other elements, like the dialog. Much of the comedy of 'Fargo' comes from paying attention to what's actually being said. The clarity of the voice track and the way that it's mixed amongst the other sounds help aid and direct viewers to catch the meaning of the what's being said. Vocal range is quite dynamic, spanning the entire spectrum from whispers to screams.
The effects mixing is perfect. Two angles specifically stand out: environmental background effects and obvious action elements. Subtle settings are filled with background sounds that make them naturally (and even unnoticeably) come to life. Action-packed scenes, on the other hand, are bombastic. Gun shocks pack a violent and bassy punch. Violence is blunt and realistic. The sound mixing undeniably has a big hand in making it come across that way.
If this isn't the Golden Era of television, then it's the start of a new age of television where every aspect of production is at least as good as the best cinema. In many cases, it's better than what we're seeing in theaters. 'Breaking Bad.' 'True Detective.' 'Game of Thrones.' 'Better Call Saul.' 'Fargo' belongs right up there with the other must-sees currently airing. It's not only a brilliant series, but it's – arguably – better than the Academy Award-winning film upon which it's premise is based. The Blu-ray presentation is fantastic and the discs are loaded with more high-quality special features than we typically get with TV-on-Blu-ray releases. If you don't know 'Fargo' yet, it's time you became familiar with it. The first season is perfect and, so far, it has only gotten better.