How do you adapt Joel and Ethan Coen’s classic film “Fargo” without ending up with lutefisk all over your face?
You don’t. While this new TV series stays true to the dark comic spirit of the 1996 film, writer Noah Hawley smartly creates his own world of characters so delightfully quirky, you won’t miss the absence of Marge Gunderson for a minute.
The story is set in 2006 and opens in Bemidji, Minn., where a mysterious stranger named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) hits a deer with his car. The accident forces open his trunk. A man emerges, dressed only in boxers, and darts into the forest.
We’re off and running.
What follows is a string of encounters and coincidences that lead to a murder spree, all slyly controlled by Malvo, a puppet master who takes great delight in screwing with people’s lives.
At the top of his list: Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a henpecked insurance salesman who dresses like Elmer Fudd and mopes around like Droopy Dog. He’s the perfect sap for Malvo’s mind games.
“The problem is you’ve lived your whole life by rules,” Malvo tells him in a hushed tone. “There are no rules.”
Thornton, doing some of his best work in years, is joined by a top-notch cast, including Kate Walsh as a former stripper who’s too busy adjusting her cleavage to grieve the death of her husband. Colin Hanks plays a soulful police officer who deeply regrets a roadside decision and newcomer Allison Tolman is a plucky deputy with just the right amount of nervous energy.
But the real attraction is Hawley’s spare dialogue, which pays homage to the Coens without resorting to plagiarism.
For those prepared to take umbrage at the umpteen “you betchas” in the script and the rube-like behavior of its characters: This isn’t a documentary.
Wrap a snowmobile suit around that thin skin of yours, and relish one of the best darn series of the year.