Fargo, TV review: Casting Martin Freeman a stroke of genius in a show brimming with stories

The best new crime drama since ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘True Detective’? You betcha!

Fargo was one heck of a movie, as they might say in Minnesota, but the smartest decision made by writer and showrunner Noah Hawley was to use the 1996 Coen brothers’ film as inspiration, not template for his 10-part TV series. The new Fargo, which began on Channel 4 last night, seemed to be brimming with characters and stories all its own.

Martin Freeman felt like the wrong choice to play Lester Nygaard, the unhappily married struggling salesman who’s reminiscent of William H Macy’s character in the original film. A Hampshire native, Freeman can’t quite pull off the “Aw, jeez” Upper Midwest accent, which was such a joy in the original movie, and his befuddled nice-guy mannerisms are the same ones John Watson has in Sherlock and Tim had in The Office. He is so innately likable, in other words, he can’t convey the snivelling self-interest which made William H Macy’s character compelling in the original. Or so it initially seemed.

Actually, the moral limits of niceness is one of the themes of Fargo and, as such, Freeman’s casting, like that of Colin Hanks (son of Tom), is a stroke of genius. Billy Bob Thornton as out-of-town hit man Lorne Malvo is also different from his movie equivalent, more charismatic and capable of infecting a downtrodden drudge like Nygaard with a dangerous strain of nihilism. “Your problem,” said Malvo to Nygaard at one point, “is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t.” In this snow-covered outpost of nowhere, he seemed to have a point.

 

What this Fargo successfully replicates is not characters or plot points, but a strange, darkly amusing contrast associated with place. In the Midwest as imagined by the Coen brothers, and now Hawley, the small-town values of “Minnesota nice” are interrupted by bursts of brutal violence. Then everyone just carries on as normal.

This built-in unpredictability, plus a great store of as-yet untapped support actors (Bob Odenkirk from Breaking Bad, Rachel Blanchard from Peep Show, Brian Markinson from Mad Men) bodes very well for this series. If you’ve been bereft of a new favourite crime drama since Breaking Bad, The Bridge and True Detective ended, then this just might be it.

Jonathan Creek certainly wasn’t it anyway, though that less-than-gritty detective series about a crime-solving magician’s assistant has its fans. Creek-geeks and many others will have thoroughly enjoyed Perspectives: the Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies on ITV last night, in which the Jonathan Creek star followed in the footsteps of one of his great heroes. 

Harry Houdini was part showman, part athlete and completely fascinating. It is no wonder he still inspires many devoted fans and imitators, including David Blaine, Dynamo and Davies himself, who delivered his to-camera pieces variously hanging upside down, submerged in ice-cold water or struggling to get free from a straitjacket in the middle of Times Square.

These activities might seem extreme, but Davies was driven to know what drove Houdini. To that end, he met fellow obsessives around London and North America, like the stage magician David Copperfield, who now owns two thirds of all surviving Houdini artefacts, including the original Chinese water torture cell.

As to what drove him, the various theories proposed included a desire to impress his beloved mother, a near-drowning experience when he was just five and escapology as an overriding metaphor for the escape from poverty. Ultimately, though, the closely guarded secrets of Houdini’s act remained a mystery – which is exactly how he would have wanted it. 

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