If your memory is fuzzy or you’ve never seen the Oscar-winning 1996 Coen brothers film “Fargo” from which this intriguing new FX series takes its name, there’s no need to rush to re-watch it to understand what's happening when the action kicks off in Tuesday’s 90-minute premiere. (Although it is an excellent film so, by all means, do see it.)
This new 10-episode drama is not strictly a remake or an adaptation but another story set in the frozen world of the original film, with the same sense of menace, desolation, humor, and, of course, fun with those “aw jeez” accents.
Created by Noah Hawley (“Bones”), with the blessing of Joel and Ethan Coen (who receive executive producer credits), the tale begins with a car wreck and continues in that same can’t-look-away vein even in its slowest moments, as “Fargo” moves from the mundane concerns of a stifling marriage to the high stakes world of criminal enterprise and murder.
Behind the wheel of that car is Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a man of nebulous, though certainly nefarious, employment, who, as he moves around town, casually — and with a silent glee — creates chaos for everyone with whom he comes in contact. He’s a one-man anarchy machine, and Thornton, with his unnerving gaze, severe haircut, and almost imperceptible sense of intimidation, has found yet another compelling character to play. (Given his penchant for trenchant observation, Lorne also feels a bit like a spiritual cousin to Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from “True Detective.”)
The results of Lorne’s agitating are potentially most disastrous for insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) — ineffectual at his job, married to a harpy, still bullied by a high school nemesis — whose placid surface is just barely masking a flaming ball of inner rage. “Your problem,” Lorne tells Lester when they meet in the ER, “is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules.” As the body count rises, it is clear the rules are about to change.
Both the accident and the collision of Lorne and Lester draw the attention of the police, particularly an eager young deputy, the winkingly named Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), whose interest in puzzle-solving and justice, and the thwarting of her interests, can be read plainly on her kind but determined face.
The rest of the supporting cast is rounded out with well-known and dependable names doing solid work, including Colin Hanks (“Dexter”) as a conflicted cop, Kate Walsh (“Private Practice”) as a hilariously manic and vain widow, and Bob Odenkirk (“Breaking Bad”) as a good-natured if not particularly gifted sheriff. (The all-star parade continues in future episodes with turns by Oliver Platt, Glenn Howerton, Adam Goldberg, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jordan Peele.)
Although “Fargo” is presented as a “true story” in the opening credits — with the names changed to protect the “survivors” — it is not one. But, as absurd and bloody as some of its turns can be, it has the feel of a true story, or at least a truthy one. It evokes the sense of how single moments — the random crossing of paths, a misguided decision, a brief emotional explosion, a routine house call by the police — and just the wearying, whittling-away damage of the daily grind can add up to make even the dullest life feel like fodder for a true crime story.
Given the welcome arrival of spring, some viewers may not be ready to dive into the wintry expanses of “Fargo,” but, based on the first few episodes, it will be worth reliving the chill.