Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fargo an excellent series... that we can't watch

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First the good news: Fargo is an excellent new TV series, and you really should tune in when it premières tonight on FX Canada.

Now, the not-so-good news: Fargo is an excellent show that you really should watch, but after tonight's debut you won't be able to, because the series' subsequent episodes will air on the newly launched FXX network, and Winnipeg's major TV-content providers, Shaw and MTS, have not yet made deals with FXX owner Rogers to carry it in this market.

Frustrating? Well, as the broadly caricatured Minnesotans in the series might say, "You betcha!"

One would have thought getting FXX into local channel guides would have been an automatic, given that both MTS and Shaw carry FX Canada, the Rogers-owned specialty net from which FXX is spun. Granted, it took a full year after that service's launch for FX Canada to be available here, but surely that overdue coming-to-terms with Rogers on FX Canada should have laid the groundwork for an easy-to-reach deal on FXX carriage.

Not so, apparently.

What that leaves local TV watchers with, then, is the opportunity to watch the 90-minute première episode of Fargo when it's simulcast on FX Canada and FXX (tonight at 9), followed by a period of bewilderment over the disappearance of such a promising show into what amounts to forbidden TV territory in these parts.

Fargo, should you still be sufficiently intrigued to read further, is not a remake of, or a direct spinoff from, the much-beloved 1996 Coen brothers feature film of the same name. It's a new story filled with new characters, but it is most definitely inspired by the darkly comic big-screen drama that carries the same name.

This new imagining of Fargo -- a 10-episode "event" series that lays the groundwork for subsequent stand-alone seasons that might follow -- focuses on a series of grim and bloody yet somehow oddly amusing events that take place in the northern Minnesota city of Bemidji.

Local insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman of The Hobbit and PBS's Sherlock) is about as down on his luck as a frostbitten fellow can get -- he's lousy at his job, has a wife at home who hates him for being such a loser, and, in the series opener, has an unfortunate chance meeting with the town loudmouth who used to bully him back in high school.

The encounter leaves Lester with an accidentally bloodied nose that requires medical attention; while he's seated in the hospital ER waiting room, he engages in conversation with a stranger who's seeking a few stitches for a cut in his forehead.

That guy turns out to be Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a rather sinister type who, upon finding out what caused Lester's broken nose, suggests that the guy who caused it doesn't deserve to live. And since Malvo, as it turns out, is a killer-for-hire who just happens to be doing a job in the area, he isn't kidding when he offers to look after Lorne's being-bullied situation.

All that's required is a yes or no answer. Of course, communication breakdowns do occur from time to time, so maybe Malvo gets the wrong signal from Lester. Whatever the case, the waiting-room conversation does inspire Malvo to do what he does best, and the next thing Lester knows, he's grappling with the notion that he might be an accessory to murder.

And that's just the beginning.

Fargo, which moves along at a small-town-ishly casual pace at the outset, quickly picks up speed as events enfold Lester. Before long, perhaps spurred on by Malvo's comments, he becomes an active rather than passive participant in dealing with the crappy hand life has dealt him.

There is more blood, and more violence, all of which leaves the local police department scrambling. In particular, soft-spoken but ambitious Const. Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is both horrified and enthralled by the sudden crime wave they're forced to investigate.

Like the 1996 movie that inspired it, this Fargo is filled with quirky but fascinating characters. A stellar supporting cast -- including the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Colin Hanks, Keith Carradine, Oliver Platt, Kate Walsh and Adam Goldberg -- does a wonderful job of bringing them to life.

Also noteworthy in Fargo's premiere is Winnipeg-born (and Vancouver-based) actor Kevin O'Grady, playing a Bemidji trucking-industry magnate whose misbehaviour plays a key role in how the storyline unfolds.

Fargo, as you might remember, is a project that nearly called Winnipeg home -- location scouts from U.S. cable's FX network looked long and hard at this city before practical considerations (including the availability of direct flights to and from Los Angeles) prompted them to choose Calgary as a shooting site instead.

Which, of course, could create an interesting situation at Shaw's Calgary headquarters in the next few days -- Fargo is an important TV show that has already created a lot of buzz, and it has deep Calgary roots. But it isn't (as of this writing) available to subscribers of the Calgary-based cable giant that serves that city.

One can't help thinking that the phone is going to start to ring at Shaw's corporate office, and perhaps a wave of "Where's Fargo?" complaints might hasten an effort that will bring the series, and the newly launched channel that carries it, to viewers in this frozen-Prairie market, as well.

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2014 C3

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