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Why 'Fargo' For TV Works With Cold Efficiency And 'Bad Teacher' Doesn't

Billy Bob Thornton in FX's <em>Fargo,</em> an adaptation that works by lifting the tone of the film, not the story.
Matthias Clamer
Billy Bob Thornton in FX's Fargo, an adaptation that works by lifting the tone of the film, not the story.

There is a moment, deep inside the first episode of FX's excellent re-imagination of the Coen brothers' masterful film Fargo, when a police officer gets a phone call.

He's sleeping next to his pregnant wife. It's early. And the well-meaning but sometimes complacent police chief is suddenly called to the scene of a bizarre crime.

Fargo fans will recall a similar scene in the 1996 film. Only it's the police chief, Frances McDormand's breezily competent Marge Gunderson, who is pregnant. And as that film's oddball crimes unfold — punctuated by the characters' folksy attitudes and Minnesota accents thick enough to slice with a hatchet — Gunderson is anything but complacent.

The connection between those two scenes hints at how FX's adaptation succeeds; revealing the best playbook for TV's increasing infatuation with bringing movies to the small screen.

This Fargo isn't dumb enough to try copying the movie, though Martin Freeman's put-upon insurance salesman Lester Nygaard is a much more sympathetic fictional cousin to William H. Macy's slimy, put-upon car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (and Freeman, a talented Brit best known for roles in the BBC's Sherlock and the Hobbit movies, just nails the required accent, don't ya know).

Instead, FX's Fargo copies the vibe of the 1996 film, re-creating the land of snow and quirky, often-dimwitted criminal eccentrics who made the film such a precious showpiece. A whole new constellation of characters is set against this familiar backdrop, playing out new tales of sordid activity in Bemidji, Minn., where the Minnesota nice is often punctured by bursts of violence and pain.

Billy Bob Thornton is the chief eccentric here, playing a hit man known as Lorne Malvo; he enjoys manipulating others and sees himself as a wily predator in a world of sheep. A chance encounter with Freeman's Nygaard leads him to kill a man who had been bullying the milquetoast insurance salesman, setting off a chain of events that include another murder and a visit by a pair of thugs from Fargo.

Allison Tolman's Molly Solverson is Marge Gunderson without the authority; a young officer whose smarts and sharp instincts are often overruled by her dimmer male superiors. The two thugs from Fargo seem a more interesting permutation of the criminal duo from Fargo that Macy's character hires in the movie (played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare).

There are several sly callbacks to the film, including an action taken in the film that's discovered on the show. And FX's episodes begin with a slightly altered version of the disclaimer that also led the movie: "THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."

This is a more extensive version of what NBC has pulled off with its excellent family drama Parenthood. Rather than try cloning characters or continuing stories from the 1989 film, Executive Producer Jason Katims built a new family that captured the vibe of the film without feeling like a Xerox.

Dax Shepard's Crosby Braverman is a less predatory version of Tom Hulce's Larry Buckman; Shepard's character even married the woman he made an unwed mother years earlier. Coach alum Craig T. Nelson is a less damaging vision of the hard-charging family patriarch played by Jason Robards, and Peter Krause is a slightly less uptight rendering of the neurotic family man played by Steve Martin on the big screen.

These moves gave Katims more room to create a contemporary family drama that now shares little with the film that inspired it beyond the name and its mission of rendering emotional stories about a complicated extended clan. (Though Katims also crafted a compelling series from an even more direct TV clone of a movie, NBC's also excellent Friday Night Lights.)

And for a lesson on the folly of copying a bad movie too closely to TV, look no further than CBS's limp take on the Cameron Diaz film Bad Teacher, debuting April 24.

Here, Ari Graynor re-creates Diaz's pathologically self-centered character as a trophy wife who becomes a teacher to snare a new sugar daddy (in the movie, Diaz is a teacher dumped by her wealthy fiancee). Supporting characters played by Sara Gilbert (the geeky best friend), Kristin Davis (bitter schoolteacher rival) and David Alan Grier (the clueless principal) feel ripped right out of the movie script.

But it doesn't work, and not just because the film it's based on was such a stinker to begin with.

If you've seen the film, you've seen the shtick. And CBS, surprisingly, doesn't find many new notes to play in the TV version, leaving open the question of why they bothered cloning such a forgettable film at all.

In the end, that's what makes Fargo the TV series a much better bet. With new characters and stories piled onto a setting and culture fans already love, you get all the nostalgia of a remake with the creative juice of an original work.

Now, how to work in a cameo by Macy or McDormand ... ?

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.