TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The FX cable network premieres a new drama series tonight. It's called "Fargo" and has the same title as the 1996 Coen brothers movie. Our TV critic David Bianculli says it's a wonderful show in that same wacky spirit, but he says it's just as important to note what this new "Fargo" is not. It's not a remake, and it's not a sequel.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The 1996 Coen brothers' "Fargo" film is a brilliant movie. Let's start there. If you've seen it, chances are you haven't forgotten it and smile a bit just at the mention of it. William H. Macy became a star by playing the Minnesota accents and cadences like a violin while portraying a hapless Midwesterner caught up in a series of increasingly bizarre illegal activities.
Pregnant cops and cranky hit men, dead bodies and stashes of mysterious money, all of it played out in the movie "Fargo" like a series of delightful character studies and kooky confrontations. It was like a Looney Tunes cartoon come to life in the numbing snow.
So when the news arrives that FX has a new series called "Fargo," the expectation is that it will be either a sequel to or expansion of that 18-year-old movie, and certainly the previews have done nothing to discourage that. But no, the TV version of "Fargo" tells a completely different story with completely different characters. Only the snow remains the same.
Yet based on the first four episodes, this new "Fargo" is a worthy companion piece to the film. The Coen brothers are on board as two of the executive producers, so they clearly approve, though that's pretty much the extent of their involvement. Instead, FX's "Fargo" is written and concocted by Noah Hawley, whose previous credits include working on "Bones" and not much else. This is his step up to the major leagues, and in his first at-bat in the bigs, he swings hard and hits a home run.
His "Fargo," this first season anyway, is envisioned as a stand-alone 10-part story. If it continues to a season two, it will be with a completely different plot, characters and cast. That's the way "True Detective" launched itself this season on HBO, and you know how brilliantly that turned out. By designing TV shows this way, longer and deeper than a feature film but not running for years, networks can get A-list movie talent to commit, and writers can craft stories with the end in sight from the start.
FX's "Fargo" benefits from that greatly. Its central character, a bullied, cowering shell of a man named Lester Nygaard, is played by Martin Freeman, who's already starring in two other concurrent franchises as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit" films and as Dr. Watson in TV's "Sherlock."
And playing Lorne Malvo, the sinister enforcer and hit man who crosses Lester's path, is Billy Bob Thornton, who hasn't taken a regular TV series role in 20 years, since he was a supporting player on the John Ritter sitcom "Hearts Afire." And that was before Thornton wrote and starred in his breakout movie, "Slingblade."
It's easy to see, though, why he came back to TV for "Fargo." Lorne Malvo is a bit like the hit man in "No Country For Old Men" - unpredictable, quirky; and definitely dangerous. But Lorne Malvo also enjoys his work a lot. He's like a little kid who kicks an ant hill just to see how the ants will react. And all the people around him, as he sees it, are ants.
Here he is in the premiere episode, sitting in the waiting room of an ER to take care of a glancing head wound. He's seated next to Lester, played by Martin Freeman. Lester is there with a broken nose because he's just been victimized by Sam Hess, an old acquaintance. And the more Lorne Malvo hears of Lester's story, the more he can't resist offering his opinion, and maybe his services.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "FARGO")
MARTIN FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) If I was any kind of man, I'd have shown that Sam what's what.
BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) Sam?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) Hess.
THORNTON: (As Lorne) The bully in high school, he's a bully now? So why didn't you show him what's what?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) Well, he had his sons with him, and...
THORNTON: (As Lorne) You let a man beat you in front of his children to send them a message?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) No, that's not - heck, just heck.
THORNTON: (As Lorne) In my experience, if you let a man break your nose, then the next time he tries to break your spine.
FREEMAN: (As Lester) Sam? No way. I mean, I don't think. It just - I guess I embarrassed him in front of his boys.
THORNTON: (As Lorne) You embarrassed him?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) By - he was telling me about a time where he and my wife, they were - he didn't know she was my wife is the thing, and when I told him...
THORNTON: (As Lorne) This man slept with your wife, and you're worried about embarrassing him?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) Not slept. No, they didn't - he said it was just - she has soft hands, see, and I guess I...
THORNTON: (As Lorne) Now Mister, we're not friends. I mean, maybe we will be some day. But I've got to say, if that were me in your position, I would have killed that man.
BIANCULLI: It's a great scene, and both actors play it with an understatement and a sense of timing that makes it even funnier. Martin Freeman, remember, was one of the stars of the original British version of "The Office," so he's great at this, and so is Thornton. "Fargo," like the movie, is full of wonderful acting and delightful dialogue and very clever visuals. And as the series develops, each episode offers new riches, new flashbacks and even new characters and actors.
The roster of co-stars in this 10-part limited series is almost absurdly deep. Current or former cops are played by Bob Odenkirk from "Breaking Bad," Colin Hanks from "Dexter," Keith Carradine from "Deadwood." And what's essentially the Francis McDormand role from the movie "Fargo," as the cop who's smarter than anyone around her, is played here by Allison Tolman, a relative unknown who won't be unknown for much longer.
And on the bad guy side of the fence, this TV "Fargo" makes room for Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Kate Walsh and plenty of others. Like "True Detective" and the best seasons of FX's "American Horror Story," TV's "Fargo" suggests very strongly that limited series are the wave of TV's future. For now, make it part of your present.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new TV series "Fargo," which premieres tonight on FX. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.