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'Fargo' Review: A Frosty Treat From The Frozen North

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Billy Bob Thornton in 'Fargo.' | FX

Well, heck! Darned if "Fargo" didn't sneak up on me and make me like it. Ya sure, I almost didn't see that coming.

I wasn't quite sure about "Fargo" at first, despite its first-rate cast; perhaps appropriately, I warmed to its charms over time -- or perhaps the show thawed out a littled over the course of its first four episodes.

A project like "Fargo" requires almost scientific calibration: It's partly a satire of the flat accents and the flat, frosty prairies of northern Minnesota. (Real talk, geography edition: Despite the name, the 10-episode miniseries is mainly set in Bemidji, Minn., with some hot stuff occurring in Duluth. All locations are played, however, by various spots in and around Calgary. Having just survived one of Chicago's most brutal winters, that's one set-visit invitation I don't regret turning down.)

A comedy that mixes dry comedy and ugly undercurrents can work just fine in a two-hour movie, as we know from the Coen brothers' 1996 film. A movie doesn't necessarily require the viewer to invest all that deeply in the characters, providing everything else is working with perfect efficiency, as it did in the stark, memorable Coen film, which was anchored by a terrific performance from Frances McDormand.

"Fargo" on the small screen faces different challenges: A TV series, even one that only lasts 10 episodes, can't glide by on that same distanced wryness. Ya sure, in both versions, some of the characters are mockable rubes and throughout, many Midwestern addictions -- niceness, courtesy, thick sweaters, refined carbohydrates, etc. -- are viewed with arch bemusement.

But wisely, as the "Fargo" miniseries develops, it gives a few of its lead characters -- particularly a couple of dogged cops -- a good deal of warmth, nuance and texture. As it progresses, it refines its own slightly off-kilter blend of dryly comedic shenanigans and dark character journeys, and perhaps most importantly, the first half of the season displays a smart, frisky pace.

Newcomer Allison Tolman is a real find as Molly Solverson, a sweet, intelligent cop who has a great deal of that most Midwestern of traits: persistence. (You don't survive Midwestern winters without a possibly unhealthy level of tenacity.) Those who've seen the film will probably have a good idea of the crime Solverson investigates, so I won't go into that here, but Tolman gives Solverson real dignity and displays subtle comic timing to boot. She ends up working with Duluth cop Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a bumbling guy who is beaten down by his bosses but somehow taps into his own personal well of tenacity.

Speaking of guys who feel trapped, Martin Freeman plays Lester Nygaard, the parka-clad schnook who sets much of the story in motion. You could be forgiven for thinking that both takes on "Fargo" -- a story that obviously predates AMC's dramas -- are sort of condensed versions of "Breaking Bad." The new FX show certainly ticks a lot of the boxes on the "prestige-TV" list: Middle-class white guy who feels oppressed, a nagging wife, frustrations at home and work leading to transgression, widening repercussions, etc. Speaking of "Breaking Bad" parallels, Bob Odenkirk even roams through "Fargo" lending his pitch-perfect comic relief to this frozen Walter-Mitty-gone-very-wrong tale.

Freeman is fine and his upper Midwest accent is passable, but, partly due to the familiarity of Lester's arc, this nervous milquetoast is ultimately is less interesting than the louche weirdos and earnest squares who get pulled into his orbit. That said, the twitchy Lester functions well enough as the fulcrum around which the story spins.

The most enticing part of "Fargo" is the work done by Billy Bob Thornton, who is fascinating from his first moment on the show and steals the entire miniseries out from under everyone. Thornton doesn't just give one great performance, he gives a few, as his crafty character, the dead-eyed lowlife Lorne Malvo, cuts a swath of destruction through the frosty heart of Minnesota. It's a delight to witness the restrained malevolence that rolls off Malvo. Like Los Pollos Hermanos proprietor Gus Fring, Malvo is a man who knows exactly who he is and what he wants to do, and Thornton displays a similar level of coiled yet casual mastery.

Not all of "Fargo" is as smooth and as finely honed as Thornton's performance. In the early going, "Fargo" occasionally strains to reach the right tone, as evidenced by some forced dialogue and a few overwrought moments (Kate Walsh, for example, wildly overplays her character, a grasping widow). The arch, one-note depiction of Lester's wife and a few other characters can veer into grating, obvious territory. Hollywood, as I've noted before, has a habit of regarding Midwesterners as hobbits, more or less: We're usually depicted as genial, somewhat dim folk who love their food and are unacquainted with irony, something I actually find in abundance in flyover country.

But these are generally mild complaints, befitting a show that explores the unruliness that lurks under mild demeanors. "Fargo" develops into a solid pleasure; it's studded with telling details, excellent performances and satisfying subplots (particularly one involving a pair of bickering hit men). All things considered, it efficiently drew me in to a quagmire of bad choices that only partly has to do with the "cutthroat world of regional trucking," as one character put it. This miniseries has an intelligent curiosity about the clash between earnest cordiality and base, animal instincts, and it's smart enough to occasionally display a beating heart.

That heart, of course, is covered by layers of wool, cotton and the like, and topped by an unattractive yet perfectly sensible parka, ya, sure.

"Fargo" airs for 10 weeks at 10 p.m. ET Tuesdays on FX.

Ryan McGee and I talked about "Fargo" and "Orphan Black" in this week's Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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