Fargo: Season 1, Episode 1 – “The Crocodile’s Dilemma”

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[No Spoilers Below]

My feelings about the films in the Coen brothers’ oeuvre (at least the ones I’ve seen) go from like to love, with many of them falling near the latter end of the spectrum. Naturally, when I heard that their 1996 should’ve-been-Best-Picture-winner Fargo was being “remade” as a TV series, I was immediately turned off to the idea. Fargo is pretty close to perfect, like at least a couple of other Coen movies. Why mess with it?

Still, I planned to watch the show just to see it fail to find that unique Coen tone and disappear after one season, if not after just a few episodes. Even the cast (particularly Martin Freeman and Coen-vet Billy Bob Thornton) failed to give me much hope or excitement. The best thing the show had going for it was the network. FX, in my opinion, has the best track record of any network, even rivaling HBO. It has an assured “brand” and airs (or has aired) some of the best shows on TV right now (let’s forget about Anger Management for a second, or forever). If any network was going to pull this 10-episode “limited series” adaptation off, it would be FX.

Of course, you know what I’m going to say next.

They did.

Now there’s the expected caveat to all of this, and that’s the fact that the show has only aired one episode. When I make the claim that this show is the successor to True Detective as far as must-watch TV dramas of the moment go, I hope you won’t hold me to that when the series concludes in 2 months. Of course, if it remains great, than good for me for jumping on the bandwagon so early.

Speaking of getting things right early, “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” is almost exactly what I’d want an adaptation of the Coen film to be. It hits just enough of the same notes feel comfortably familiar, referencing the film in several scenes and characters. It also inverts or modifies certain things, giving it the necessary “new twist” on the material that will allow this series to stand on its own.

At 69 minutes, the pilot episode is about 30 minutes shorter than the feature film it’s based on, but it feels like a feature all its own. The episode tears through characters and confrontations at a surprising pace, but still manages to achieve a balance by giving its cast time to turn these people into actual human beings. Sure, some of the supporting cast, like Kelly Holden Bashard’s Pearl or Kevin O’Grady’s Sam Hess are a bit one-note and put there just to aggravate, intimidate or push others into action, but others are given some time to grow, change, or at the very least make us aware that there is something more complex beneath the surface.

As strong as “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” is on its own–and I do believe it could hold its ground as a short feature–the episode sets everything in motion for the season to follow. Knowing what we do about the shocking crimes committed in the episode, it seems clear what the endgame will be for at least some of the series’ characters. Then again, the pilot threw in enough unexpected moments that perhaps things won’t finish quite as neatly (or cleanly) as expected. After all, telling a straightforward story isn’t exactly a Coen thing to do.

“The Crocodile’s Dilemma” (a title which refers to a logic paradox) is an admirable achievement for a single episode of television. It handles the adaptation with assurance, but it isn’t beholden to the source material, moving and breathing under its own power. Kudos to “creator” Noah Hawley (who’s Jeremy Renner-starring 2009  effort The Unusuals was better than it got credit for) for finding a balance between the familiar and the new that makes the series worthy of its name but watchable on its own terms. That said, we still have 9 episodes to go, but even if the show drops the ball from here out, I believe this inaugural episode of Fargo, the series, will still stand as one of the best of the year.

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