I've never been a huge Coen Brothers fan. I find some of their movies very entertaining, others complete misfires, and all of them seemingly wearing their writer-direction on their sleeve. Often, they have a beautifully filmed quality but overwrought characters and a cold starkness that takes a long time to thaw out in your mind. The first time I watched The Hudsucker Proxy I couldn't even get through it; the next time I was completely absorbed. Most of their movies have a few elements I love, and a few I hate. The only thing I cared for in O Brother, Where Art Thou? was its fabulous music, while No Country For Old Men, despite an unforgettable villain, had a narrative choice near the end that ruined the entire movie for me.
That said, it took me three viewings of Fargo before I fell in love with it, and now consider it to be far and away the best Coen brothers film. When I heard FX had a TV show version coming out, I was decidedly underwhelmed, mainly because I couldn't fathom how that one-shot story could be expanded into a ten-episode series.
Well, showrunner Noah Hawley blew me away with Season One, taking the cinematic Coen-iness and ramping it up perfectly as a sequel to the original story with one remarkable new character after another. Martin Freeman was perfect as gutless insurance salesman Lester Nygaard who crossed paths with a chillingly malevolent Billy Bob Thornton in a small Minnesota town. Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, and Allison Tolman as the local cops were pitch perfect. There wasn't one wasted moment, and the cinematography was as good as anything you'd find in a widescreen movie. It was so good it out-Coened the Coen Brothers.
Season Two? Even better, if that's possible. More colorful characters, a crazier plot, all set in an impeccably art-designed late '70s northern midwest. Kirsten Dunst makes a dazzling comeback as Peggy Blumquist, a loopy Luverne, MN beautician who has the misfortune of hitting the mobbed-up son of Fargo's Gerhardt Family with her car, moments after he's shot three people to death in a Waffle Hut. Ted Danson and Patrick Wilson are the head cops this time, both more competent than all the others, and the roster of villains who overwhelm the cast never fail to be creepy and hilarious. Best of all may be Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan, a quiet, reflective fellow representing the big boys in Kansas City who is smarter, sexier, and far more dangerous than any of the oafs in the Fargo clan. Jean Smart as "Floyd" Gerhardt, the mother of the local crime syndicate, is also a revelation.
As in the original Fargo movie and all of Season One, odd, unpredictable circumstances propel the story and wrap the characters into its clutches. As the audience, we are right along with them. The innovative use of split screens, rare, unsettling music and extraordinary camerawork are impossible to ignore, but never feel contrived and thematically fit the kicked-in-the-head, eccentric flavor of each episode. Nick Offerman, fresh off his epic Ron Swanson turn on Parks and Recreation, even has a minor but riveting part as town political crackpot Karl Weathers, complete with Amish beard and surprising coolheadeness under fire.
The Season Two finale happens this coming Monday, and I'm already counting the minutes. There have been plenty of other fantastic shows in this new Golden Age of Television, but I'm not sure I've absolutely enjoyed anything more than Fargo. Goofy accents, unflinching violence and all, it's like getting a gift-wrapped box of delicious mystery candy delivered through your screen once a week--and diet be damned.
Jeff Polman writes about sports and culture for various Web sites and has published three "historical baseball replay novels". His most recent, Mystery Ball '58, is now available on Amazon, with his newest effort, Twinbill, due out in January.