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Fargo on TV – why some remakes and remixes work

On Easter weekend in Dublin, where the fun often is, there was a re-enactment of a battle that took place there in April, 1014. The battle was between the native Irish forces and the Vikings, the latter having established a base in Dublin two centuries before.

It is supposed to have lasted from sunrise to sunset, been very bloody, and ended in an Irish victory.

Many hundreds of people went to Dublin, from all over Ireland and Scandinavian countries, to dress up as the warring armies and depict the event. The description of the re-enactment in The Irish Times relied heavily, but wisely, on commentary from a small child, a little girl, who was there with her parents to witness it. As some participants feigned death on the battlefield, the child said, "The people on the ground are dead. In real life there'd be guts and stuff."

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Too true. Then, as those who had feigned death got up and walked away, the child explained to her parents, "They're zombies now."

Indeed. You can see where the kid gets her education about battles, death and stuff like that.

This story is told to you by way of introducing the topic of remakes, re-enactments and revisions and, ahem, reimagining things that already exist. Like much-loved movies.

Fargo (FX Canada, Tuesday,10 p.m., available online and on-demand) has been going for a few weeks now and bears scrutiny in this context.

The original movie, Joel and Ethan Coen's black comedy of viciousness and horror visited upon a small community, is a classic, but also inspires deep affection. It was defined by Frances McDormand's majestic performance as the pregnant cop, Marge Gunderson. Also by the deft use of a wood chipper. So why bother to revisit it? Why bother to attempt a re-enactment of what was glorious?

Watching Fargo the series is at first unnerving. (This isn't the first try at turning the 1996 movie into a series. There have been two failed network attempts that never aired.) What you expect is an homage to the story, and it isn't there. What you get is an homage to the tone and setting of the movie, and that's why Fargo works as fine TV.

There is a Gunderson-like character in Allison Tolman's anxious but diligent cop Molly Solverson, but Molly is only one of a group of characters existing and interacting in this dream-like space that is the show's setting – the seemingly blank, wintry canvas that is northern Minnesota. While Fargo the movie was anchored in the recognizable humanity of Marge, the TV version is much more heightened, remote from ordinary benevolence. There's a magic-realism quality to it, all the more surreal for unfolding not in the warm lushness of a Latin American setting, but in the shiver-inducing Midwestern winter.

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There are times, watching the series, when you realize that central character Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a stone-faced contract killer, might not be real at all, but an emanation of the evil impulses that are hidden inside a bunch of other characters. And then there is the unsettling fact that Malvo looks vaguely like the image of folklore hero and lumberjack Paul Bunyan, whose statue dominates the town of Bemidji, the setting for events.

The series is also emphatically arch in its approach to the characters and storylines. Perhaps this is why there is such an impressive cast. Apart from Thornton, there is British actor Martin Freeman (John Watson on Sherlock) as Lester Nygaard, a henpecked husband so ineffectual he might as well be a pantomime character. There is also Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad) as a hopelessly naive cop, Oliver Platt as the improbably boorish supermarket magnate Stavros and Keith Carradine as Molly's improbably wise dad. The dialogue and the warped characters present the actors with a challenge they relish. It's a rare opportunity to go over the op in a setting where it makes sense to do that.

Mostly, though, this Fargo works because it is in the hands of a writer, Noah Hawley, and not in the hands of anxious network TV execs who would worry about very direct connections to the original movie, in order to brand the series. Hawley is anxious to surprise, not offer the overly familiar.

And thus it would be no shock if some characters, left for dead, emerge as zombies. The kid in Dublin has a keen eye for how to make re-enactments and remakes truly interesting.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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