(USATODAY.com) - Go FX.
This spring has turned into a heady season for great TV dramas, with Game of Thrones, Mad Menand The Americans thriving on cable, The 100setting a new standard for CW, and The Good Wifesimply on fire on CBS. With so many riches from which to choose, who would have thought FX would give us not just another contender for TV's top quality slot, but one that is both thoroughly original and outrageously entertaining?
Everything about Fargo (**** out of four; Tuesday, 10 ET/PT) is refreshingly idiosyncratic, starting with a name that might either lead you to believe it's set in Fargo (it isn't) or that it's a remake of the Ethan and Joel Coen movie Fargo — which it also isn't. Instead, this 10-episode miniseries, written and created by Noah Hawley, uses all-new characters to tell a brand new Fargo-ish story — as if the film had been the first, short season of an anthology series and the TV version is the season that follows.
MORE: You'll likely recognize this 'Fargo'
If you love the Coen brothers' films, you may be disappointed to learn that they're not actively involved in the day-to-day creation of the show. But they have put their names on it as producers, and you can see why: Hawley has channeled their style in a way that works as a tribute without coming across as cheap imitation. Hawley'sFargo is something all its own, and yet something equally wonderful.
Oh, and in Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, it has a pair of stars whose brilliantly written and played dynamic gives the warped relationship between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective a run for its money. Together, they're our guides through the Fargo universe — that mix of blood-soaked events and understated humor, tied to a cleverly structured story and set against the halting conversations and restrained "nice" behavior of small-town Bemidji, Minn.
There we meet Lester Nygaard (Freeman), a gentle little man who is insulted by his brother, derided by his wife, and bullied by a local thug. By chance he crosses paths with Lorne Malvo (Thornton), part-time paid enforcer and full-time gleefully malevolent, criminally ingenious sprite, whose greatest pleasure in life is bringing out the worst in people.
Malvo is a professional with his own odd set of standards, and he doesn't kill randomly. But murder does follow in his wake — drawing with it two determined cops, Allison Tolman's Molly and Colin Hanks' Gus, and two more hired killers (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard, who, like everyone in the cast, give spot-on performances).
Murder, of course, abounds on TV. What separates Fargo is the depth of its characterizations and the individuality of its approach. There's violence, but the worst of it has both impact and purpose: Notice, for example, that the most graphic and horrific act in the first four hours is done by a good person pushed beyond limits, not by one of the "pros." And when things get too tense, some wildly amusing moment will arrive — often framed so that the joke happens out of view of the main characters.
The show also gives us two heroes in Tolman's Molly and Hanks' Gus, who are flawed but not damaged, which is a nice break from the current trend. Molly is ambitious and finds her ambitions thwarted by the dimwitted men around her. Gus gave into a moment of fear and weakness, and now must struggle to redeem himself.
And through it all, there's the riveting performances of Thornton and Freeman. Wait for the way Thornton can shift from a sly smile to a venomous gaze, or the way Freeman mixes Lester's frustration, fear and regret with flashes of relief.
Tuesday. 10 ET/PT. Go.