I don't know why, but my mom took me to see Raising Arizona when I was 7 years old. Maybe she just wanted to see it and couldn't get a babysitter? I mean I know it's PG but there's nothing about it that suggests a 7-year-old would enjoy it; I think I liked seeing "the guy on the motorcycle" but that's probably it, and I barely remembered it a few months later. I'd revisit it once I became a fan of the Coen Bros, however, and that appreciation began with Fargo in 1996. This was, of course, the post-Pulp Fiction world where violent crime comedy/dramas were pretty ubiquitous, and I didn't care for many that I saw, but Fargo (unfairly lumped into that crowd in some reviews at the time, though it's probably how it got on my 16-year-old radar) stood out and remains my personal favorite Coen film, which is why I was a bit hesitant to see it remade as a TV series.
To be fair, I was misinformed about the show's design - someone had told me that it was basically doing the same thing as the movie but with different names; i.e. Martin Freeman's Lester was just William H. Macy's Jerry, but while that may be true in the broadest of broad strokes, now that I've seen the show after a marathon viewing I can happily say that person was wrong to dissuade me from seeing the show during its original airing on FX - but I'm also glad I didn't have to wait a week to watch the next episode. But not because the show had Breaking Bad-style cliffhangers that almost forced you to see what happened next - it was because it really felt like one long movie instead of episodic television.
Writer Noah Hawley wrote every episode of the show, and every two episodes had the same director (so one guy did eps 1 and 2, another did 3 and 4, etc). This not only ensured a visual and narrative continuity that most TV shows lack, but it also meant that the show never bothered with mini-arcs or even one-shot guest stars; if you recognized someone, chances are they would appear in at least one more episode. They're nothing alike on a story level, but since it also airs on FX I couldn't help but think of American Horror Story, which also has contained seasons (albeit more or less the same cast; Fargo's second season isn't likely to have any of these folks). That show has its merits, but it also feels like TV far too often, so you get random subplots like "Anne Frank" (in Asylum) that seem designed to keep their main story from exhausting itself too soon. Also with a traditional writer's room environment, the show switches gears/tone from episode to episode, resulting in dropped subplots and erratic character behavior (the third season being the worst offender; it was nearly impossible to remember who was on whose side since they'd just switch allegiances at the drop of a hat). This isn't the case with Fargo; the tenth and final episode is perfectly in line with the premiere, and things that are set up early in the season are brought back in the end in time to be paid off - just like a movie! A ten-hour movie.
And even though it's not copying the movie's plot, it exists in its wheelhouse - the sense of humor is the same, and our heroine is once again a female cop (eventually a pregnant one to boot), but it's not so close that when they make a direct connection to the film that it seems insane (unlike say, The Thing prequel, where it's supposed to be the same world but a different story; however, a laughable number of things happen again).
Our protagonist is Lester (Freeman), a put-upon insurance salesman in Bemidji, Minnesota, who has a chance encounter with Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a hitman who is in the area on an unrelated assignment. Malvo enjoys seeing people's lives get interrupted and partially destroyed, so for that reason he decides to make a mess for Lester by killing Hess, a man who bullied Lester in high school and continues to torment him to this day. While this is happening, Lester snaps during another fight with his nagging wife and kills her with a hammer, asking for Malvo's help to clean it up. But Malvo's got his own problems - Hess had mob ties, and when they send a couple of enforcers to find his killer, Malvo has to put more plans into motion to keep himself from getting offed. As is often the case in a Coen Bros world, things get out of hand and many more people die.
Naturally this many bodies attracts the police, which is where Molly Solverson comes in. Played by the wonderful Allison Tolman, Solverson is a deputy who is eager to make a big case like this, something that is encouraged by her Chief, Hank, who is unfortunately killed early on due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His replacement, Bill (Bob Odenkirk, "guest starring" in all but one episode) is less willing to hear her theories and continually tries to keep her from investigating the case any further, assuming a drifter is to blame for the murders, even when irrefutable evidence against Lester and the mysterious Malvo starts accumulating. Her only ally is Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), who also had an encounter with Malvo in the neighboring town of Duluth. As they build their case, more bodies pile up, as Lester starts to get used to lying and manipulating the other participants in this story.
This is where he and Jerry are ultimately completely different; Jerry was a whiny, nervous wimp from start to finish, but Lester kind of grows a pair as time goes on. I mean it sucks he had to kill his wife to learn to stand up for himself, but even though he's a murderer and awful person I couldn't help but feel a bit proud of the guy when he took his revenge on Hess by banging his wife (Kate Walsh in full-on trashy mode), or when he engineered an escape plan from the hospital where he had a guard at his door. You can see real growth in all of the characters (not Malvo) from its first to its eighth episode, where it almost seems like things have come to an end (albeit not a fully satisfying one), only for Hawley to pull off a daring move that actually works like gangbusters. This allows even more growth (and, yes, a fully satisfying conclusion), and makes a great show even better in the process.
I don't think it's a spoiler to say how the show connects to the movie, but if you want to be surprised just skip this paragraph. Given that the movie took place in 1987 and this takes place in 2006, none of its events could be occurring at the same time, but there IS one much discussed leftover plot point from the film that can be exploited: the bag of money that Carl stashes next to a fence. In the fourth episode, a flashback to 1987 shows what happened to that fortune, and while the execution is a bit clunky (they have a younger actor play the character we've already met, and they look nothing alike - an odd approach for someone who is already a grown man in 1987), it's the best way to connect the two without risking disappointment from the film's fans. If Marge or Jerry showed up, it would feel like fan service and likely be disappointing, but with this, it doesn't even matter if you've seen the movie, as the character who finds it has his own theory as to how the money got there.
In addition to the perfect main cast (Thornton hasn't been this good in years), the series offers fun supporting turns from several much-loved character actors (Oliver Platt, Keith Carradine), Coen vets (Stephen Root) and even Key and Peele (!) as a pair of FBI agents that are also after Malvo. Again, no one of note only appears once (except the people killed in the premiere), and I think everyone gets a chance to have a scene with everyone else, eventually (with one major exception that was done for a reason and pointed out in one of the bonus features). There's a scene late in the series where Malvo is trying to get Lester's address from Carradine's character (a diner owner, and Molly's father), and it's practically as tense as the Hopper/Walken scene in True Romance, with Carradine knowing that this guy is trouble and trying to keep it friendly, while Thornton is possibly ready to snap and kill him with one wrong word. And while it's a shame that the plot keeps Freeman and Thornton apart for so much, Hawley more than makes up for it when they do reunite under very different circumstances from the last time they met.
Really, I could just go on and on about all the things I loved, but I'll spare you and say that the series is every bit as compelling, exciting and humorous as the movie, and if you've already seen it then Fox has given you a good reason to check it out on Blu-ray. In addition to the terrific transfers that allow you to see every Minnesotan snowflake with great detail, there are a number of quality bonus features, including deleted scenes that provide a few nice character moments (nothing overly essential, but all clearly just cut for time) and several featurettes about the show's production and genesis. The Coens sadly do not appear, but as one of the producers explains, Ethan said something flattering about the first episode, and they are notoriously private and tight-lipped about stuff, so he is rightfully proud that he got those few words of endorsement (they also told the show's creators that they'd only put their names on it if they liked it, so that's another win). The frigid temperatures are discussed at length (though Thornton claims the production of A Simple Plan was even colder), and if you're like me you'll marvel at behind-the-scenes footage that offers Freeman using both his real British accent and his perfect Minnesotan one in the same shot. Speaking of language, they also go in depth about how hearing impaired actor Russell Harvard worked with his on-screen partner Adam Goldberg to develop their chemistry, with the latter learning to sign for their scenes together. There's also a nice moment where we learn that Thornton pushed to get a blank put into a gun that was aimed at him, rather than using the much safer CGI, as the actor holding the gun thought totally faking it would ruin the moment. Would Tom Petty do that?
There are also a few commentaries on select episodes, but I didn't have the time to listen to them (Fox wants reviews up in a timely manner but they like to send the discs the day before street date - fine for a movie, not so much for a 10-hour series). But I can even turn that into praise for the show - I'm excited about revisiting the series again someday just so I can listen to the commentaries, and will be keeping the set at a time where I've largely given up buying TV series. Sure, the plot twists and shocking deaths won't be as effective, but this is a world that is completely fleshed out and believable, and I'd very much like to visit it again. In a world where we have an inexplicable and overly drawn-out PG-13 retelling of the hard R From Dusk Till Dawn that casts a lousy actor in a role famously played by George Clooney, it's nice to know that a movie can be adapted to TV and retain every single one of its source's strengths while also giving us something completely fresh. Take a note, Mr. Rodriguez - this is how it's done.