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'Fargo' on FX is pretty good, but not 1996 'Fargo' good

Billy Bob Thornton arrives at the Fox All-Star

Billy Bob Thornton arrives at the Fox All-Star Party on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, Calif. Credit: AP / Richard Shotwell / Invision

FX's much much anticipated "Fargo" arrives Tuesday at 10 p.m. our time and I'm not quite sure what time in Minnesota.  But you probably want to know the basics besides times, yaa -- can William H. Macy ever possibly be bettered? Is there someone out there who even remotely approaches Frances McDormand in terms of sheer Coen-esque perfection? (Or Peter Stormare? Or Buscemi? Of the latter, of course not.)  This series, as you may already know, is not a remake whatsoever, but "homage."

Newsday's review:

"Fargo," FX, Tuesday, 10

What it's about: The arctic wind blows down over Bemidji, Minn. with a killing numbness. The immensity of whiteness left in its wake seems to absorb all living things -- except for hitman, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) who has a job to do. A minor car accident lands him in the local emergency room. There he meets Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), an insurance salesman tending to a swollen nose caused by the local bully. Lorne wonders if he'd like the bully dead? One thing leads to another and before long, death stalks Bemidji. This 10-part series from Joel and Ethan Coen is billed as an "homage" to their '96 film classic.

My say: Just to be perfectly clear, "Fargo" is fictional. The movie was fictional, too, so don't be thrown by the (by now) classic opening line on-screen that reads "...Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."

That's bull -- or, more kindly, that's homage to the original (which also had the message, even though the movie was broadly based on a "true story" or stories). But also a gimmick, a tease, and a way to get you in the right frame of mind for what is to come.

And "what is to come" is what came in the 1996 film -- all that gentle, buttery "Minnesota Nice" leads directly into sudden, percussive violence. Peter Stormare, as the ruthless butcher Gaear Grimsrud, had the profoundly dead eyes in the film. Thornton as Malvo has them here.

The Coens have even found another Margie (Oscar winner Frances McDormand in the film): She is Molly Solverson -- played by relative newcomer, Allison Tolman, who is excellent as the cop five times smarter than the Barney Fifes who surround her.

Since comparisons are inevitable, let's go ahead and make more: "Fargo," the series, is funnier than the film, more bleakly so. The Coens, of course, got brilliant performances out of their film actors and they do here as well -- Thornton especially, who is a magnificent sociopath-monster. Freeman -- a superstar already -- simply reminds everyone again how good he is.

But the film was a masterpiece of storytelling economy that didn't spill over into side-stories, a few of which are patently ridiculous in the series (four episodes were provided for review). The film's essential weirdness felt real. The TV series' weirdness is more often just comical (or disgusting. One word: Spiders.)

Still, there are many memorable Coen-esque touches - the series was co-written by Noah Hawley - that will stay with you long after you've finished watching. Some of them even seem reminiscent of non-Coen films: The two bone-headed brothers, or "wolves," for example, seem to come straight out of "Nebraska." Then you realize: A film like "Nebraska," and so many others, were directly influenced by the Coens.  

  Meanwhile, be sure to check out the opening of the fourth episode. A long-standing "Fargo" mystery is solved...Whatever happened to the money by the fence...?

Bottom line: If you love the movie, you should love this, but ...

Grade: B+

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