It’s hard to sink fully into the new FX series Fargo without first pining for the magnificent 1996 Coen brothers movie upon which it’s based. No matter how determined you might be to judge the 10-episode show — featuring a fresh case and characters — on its own merits, there’s that initial sense of greatness missing. In the grisly pilot episode, squirrelly insurance agent Lester (Martin Freeman) jokingly enlists smooth and grim hitman Lorne (Billy Bob Thornton) to kill his former high school bully. Lester’s vague act of complicity in a bad man’s death kicks off more murders and the almost comedic unraveling of his own life. The dark absurdist tone doesn’t land quite as cleanly as in the film, and there’s the enormous absence of goddess Frances McDormand, who brought such great plainspoken heart to the movie’s otherwise bleak landscape. So one watches the pilot with furrowed brow, convinced that this was an ill-conceived experiment. But do keep watching, because the show boasts unique and satisfying hooks.
Poor, angry, pent-up Lester, henpecked by everyone — Freeman brings a taut energy to the character. (After committing an evil act in the pilot, Lester frantically calls Lorne’s motel room for guidance. ”Yeah, it’s me, you got to help me, I’ve done something bad,” he squawks into the phone. ”Leroy Motor Inn?” the front-desk receptionist says. Lester: ”Oh, hi, room 23, please.”) Freeman’s Lester is the perfect bumbling counterpart to Thornton’s graceful Lorne, whose look and demeanor seem a direct descendant of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. Kate Walsh deserves special mention too as the former-stripper wife of Lester’s bully. She’s nasty fun, glugging red wine from a plastic jug and straddling Lester in the hopes it will help her insurance money come in quicker.
But the show finds its literal sweet spot in the kind face of Colin Hanks, who plays police deputy Gus Grimly, a single father so spooked by Lorne during a routine traffic stop that he shamefully agrees to let the man go. This is Hanks’ finest work, and his decent, weary mug is reason alone to watch the show. When he teams up with Molly (played by newcomer Allison Tolman), a shrewd, salt-of-the-earth deputy from Lester’s hometown, Fargo takes its own compelling flight. You root for these two as they try to make some kind of sense of their rotten world. B+