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 (“My Generation,” “The Unusuals,” “Bones”) premiering at 10 p.m. Tuesday 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.
“MGM didn’t have to involve them,” said 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 (Frances McDormand) 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.
Said 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 (“Parkland,” “Monster’s Ball”) stars as Lorne Malvo, a ruthless, manipulative drifter who has a life-altering chance encounter with small-town insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman of “Sherlock” and 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. – known, among other things, for curling and giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox.
Rounding out the cast are 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,” said Freeman, “even when I wasn’t intending it to be.”
Meeting Malvo also changes Lester’s nervous, insecure nature.
“The character has a great stillness about him,” said Freeman of Thornton. “It’s very seductive. He has that effect on you when you’re working with him, because he has a real quiet and stillness.”
“I seem to have some odd chemistry with Martin,” said 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. ”