Yes, we still reject all TV remakes and reboots as a general rule. But there are exceptions. Case in point: FX's "Fargo" (debuting April 15), a new ten-hour miniseries which takes us back to the snowy, Minnesota-nice setting of the 1996 Coen brothers indie-film classic, but tells an entirely new story that's just as gripping (and funny) as the original.
"It doesn't rely on the movie, while paying great tribute to the movie and having the same tone," star Billy Bob Thornton told critics today during FX's winter press tour. Thornton was joined on the panel by co-star Martin Freeman ("The Hobbit," "Sherlock"), who admitted the miniseries "could've been a terrible 'Fargo' spinoff… it had to stand on its own, and it did."
Indeed, the original "Fargo," which won Oscars for the Coens' original screenplay and lead actress Frances McDormand, is such a perfect blend of comedy (the accents!) and drama (the wood chipper!) that it's hard to imagine a TV version not screwing it up. A "Fargo" TV series was actually attempted once before back in 1997 (with a pre-"Sopranos" Edie Falco in the McDormand role), but never got past the pilot stage.
FX's version (penned by "Bones" writer Noah Hawley) wisely starts fresh, with a cast of characters that seem familiar but operate in new and surprising ways. Instead of Brainerd, the miniseries is set in the tiny Minnesota town of Bemidji. Instead of William H. Macy's sniveling car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, Freeman stars as Lester Nygaard, a doormat insurance salesman who has been "so squeezed by life," as Hawley put it, he's been pushed "to the point where he might snap."
Instead of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare's roving criminals, Thornton plays Lorne Malvo, a philosophical hitman who lures Lester into a dangerous game. "It's not a typical bad guy," Thornton said of his role. "It's sort of God and the devil wrapped up into one... a puppet-master, in a sense." (Malvo actually feels closer in spirit to a character from another Coen brothers film: "No Country for Old Men's" coin-flipping killer Anton Chigurh, the role that won Javier Bardem an Oscar.)
And instead of McDormand's polite but dogged police chief Marge Gunderson, newcomer Allison Tolman plays ambitious deputy Molly Solverson, who's excited to get a chance to solve a murder. But if you think you know how this plays out, guess again: FX's "Fargo" plays upon your knowledge of the film and zigs where you expect it to zag. The first episode alone packs three or four shocking twists, and leaves you uncertain of just who the hero of this story will be (if anyone).
"Fargo's" supporting cast includes a host of familiar faces as well: "Breaking Bad's" Bob Odenkirk, as an amiable cop; "Grey's Anatomy" alum Kate Walsh, as the preening trophy wife of a local businessman; and Colin Hanks, as a kindly Minnesota sheriff who makes a fateful decision in the first hour that continues to gnaw at him as the story unfolds.
Joel and Ethan Coen do serve as executive producers on the miniseries, and Hawley said they didn't need to do that: "They could've just went to the mailbox and picked up their check." But they read Hawley's pilot script and liked it, offering no notes (beyond a few possible jokes to add): "They told me to go ahead and make my show."
But what if (gasp) you've never seen "Fargo"? Can you still enjoy FX's version? According to Hawley, you betcha. "After a season or two of the show, people who see the movie might say, 'That was a great episode of 'Fargo.'' Each season is a separate true crime story from that region. The movie now fits into the series as another true crime story from the region." Yes, he did say "a season or two." Bundle up, "Fargo" fans: There may be multiple Minnesota winters in our future.
"Fargo" premieres Tuesday, April 15 at 10 p.m. on FX.