Could FX's "Fargo" be the best new TV series of 2014 so far? You betcha.
Others may praise the verbose slog that was "True Detective" or the uninvolving history of "Turn," but for sheer entertainment value and constant surprise, no new program is better than this 10-part limited series adaptation of the Coen brothers' 1996 film "Fargo."
This TV series, which will tell a complete story over its short run (no cliffhanger, no season two with the same characters), is more inspired by the movie "Fargo" -- its settings, its character types -- than it is a remake (none of the movie's characters appear), although a plot twist in an episode four flashback to 1987 suggests it also functions as a sequel.
Filled with dark humor and a mix of quirky and menacing characters, "Fargo" blends whimsy and tragedy in a highly watchable mix. It's easily the best produced work ever from writer Noah Hawley ("The Unusuals," "My Generation"), who embraces the tone of the "Fargo" movie and applies it to a whole new batch of characters for the TV series. Some of these characters will be familiar -- there's a female cop and a nebbish-gone-bad -- but none of them are exactly identical to their feature film forerunners. They feel like wholly formed new creations.
The show's premiere focuses on Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, "Sherlock," "The Hobbit"), a wimpy insurance salesman in Bemidji, Minn., with an emasculating, belittling wife.
"Guess I married the wrong Nygaard," she says after telling a story about Lester's more successful brother. Then she tells her husband to wear a better tie; he points out she bought the one he's wearing.
"If you were a better salesman, I would have bought you a nicer tie," she replies.
Lester's life takes a left turn into mayhem when he meets manipulative sociopath Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) in a hospital waiting room.
Future episodes follow a murder investigation with an emphasis on Bemidji deputy Molly Solverson (terrific newcomer Allison Tolman, a standout) and easily spooked Duluth police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks, "Roswell").
The strong cast roster also includes Kate Walsh ("Private Practice"), Oliver Platt ("The Big C"), Bob Odenkirk ("Breaking Bad"), Glenn Howerton ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") and Keith Carradine ("Dexter"). They play an assortment of disparate, unrelated characters who seem to be on a collision course with one another in future episodes.
The common thread connecting them is Malvo, a smart gleeful disrupter whose destruction of people's lives makes him a character to both loathe and love. Malvo drives the plot's unpredictable turns, and his intelligence draws viewers in even as his actions repulse. Mr. Thornton brings his trademark quiet menace to the role, and it's particularly effective when applied to Malvo.
In episode two, Malvo buys Adderall from a drug dealer, saying, "Just pretend I'm a 300-pound 9-year-old who can't finish a sentence."
Tonight's 90-minute pilot offers a terrific kickoff to the series, which falters a bit in episode two but regains its footing in episodes three and four. If it stays strong, viewers may pine for more "Fargo," but FX executives have said this limited series tells a complete story. There could be future seasons with new characters -- similar to the "American Horror Story" model -- but Lester, Lorne, Molly and Gus are poised for just this batch of episodes. But if the quality stays as high as it is in the first four episodes FX made available for review, what a terrific short run it will be.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.