The trick to riffing on something familiar is to retain the flavor of the original -- so as to draw in existing fans -- but still do something distinctive enough to attract new fans. Of course, it helps when a project gets the first creators' seal of approval. Such is the case with "Fargo," the new 10-episode series from writer Noah Hawley premiering Tuesday, April 15, on FX.
It takes its title, setting and tone from the 1996 black comedy/crime thriller written by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, directed by the former, and produced by the latter.
"Fargo"Premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, on FX
"MGM didn't have to involve them," says executive producer Warren Littlefield, "but we wanted to. So when Noah's script was presented to them, they were like, 'This is really good.' In fact, they said to Noah, 'We don't like imitation, but we feel like you channeled us.'
"It was a pretty amazing compliment from the Coens. Then they agreed to put their names on as executive producers -- not hands-on, day to day. They very much believe that it's all about an artist and a vision, and that Noah had that."
So you're not going to get the small-screen version of pregnant Minnesota police chief Marge Gunderson hunting strange criminals. But the show lives in a similar universe to "Fargo," with maybe a bit of another Coen Brothers film, "No Country for Old Men," tossed in.
Says Hawley, "The idea of doing the Marge Gunderson show is ... you're never going to live up to the movie. We decided we're making 'No Country for Old Fargo.' It's the difference between two hours and 10 hours."
In FX's "Fargo," Billy Bob Thornton stars as Lorne Malvo, a ruthless, manipulative drifter who has a life-altering chance encounter with small-town insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, the "Hobbit" movies). Also starring are Colin Hanks as Gus Grimly, a Duluth, Minn., police deputy and single dad who crosses Malvo's path, and Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson, an ambitious deputy from Bemidji, Minn. Rounding out the cast are Naperville native Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Glenn Howerton, Joey King, Peter Breitmayer, Tom Musgrave, Josh Close, Russell Harvard and Adam Goldberg.
Fans of the dark humor of the original "Fargo" may feel right at home. In one scene, Lester does something shockingly violent, but for one person watching, it played out more as farce than tragedy.
"It was quite fun and technical and funny," says Freeman, "even when I wasn't intending it to be. ... I always heard Adam Bernstein, the director, laughing. I always heard him under his breath, trying not to be heard, but I would always hear this" -- Freeman makes a snickering sound -- "like that.
"What I thought was a traumatic, Emmy-winning moment was apparently a bit of a laugh."
Meeting Malvo also changes Lester's nervous, insecure nature. Freeman says of Thornton: "the character has a great stillness about him."
"I seem to have some odd chemistry with Martin," says Thornton. "It's weird -- maybe it's because his character is so nerved-up and hyperactive, whatever, and mine is still. Maybe that's it. I feel really grounded in the scenes with him.
"I like the control that my character has over people without having to be the typical bad guy. There's not a real threat other than saying, 'Here's what you're going to do,' and they get into this trance. It's weird."
For Tolman, a stage and sketch comedy actor, it became about remembering that the secret to successful deadpan comedy is to service the deadpan, not the comedy.
"When I first started," she says, "I had to remind myself that I couldn't play the comedy in a script like this. Because I've been doing sketch for so long, that I was like, 'Here's the joke! How can I put it on a pedestal so everyone gets it?'
"So I really had to move toward that subtlety."
"Fargo" also gave film star Thornton the opportunity to do steady-date television without having to marry the medium. "When I was offered this," he says, "I wasn't looking to get into a TV series that may last for six or seven years. They said, 'It's only 10 episodes; it's based on "Fargo"; it's the Coen Brothers executive producing.'
"I read the script, and it's like, 'Wow, who wouldn't do this?'"