When Ethan Coen finished watching the first episode of “Fargo,” the TV version, he mumbled his initial reaction: Yeah, good.
“When Ethan says, ‘Yeah, good,’ he’s over the moon,” said Billy Bob Thornton, who has worked with the Minnesota-raised Coen brothers on three films and stars as a mysterious, manipulative drifter in the Bemidji, Minn.-set dramedy debuting Tuesday on the FX network.
The Coens have every reason to be ecstatic. The 10-part series, shot in Calgary, is as hilarious and harrowing as the 1996 thriller that earned them their first Oscar nominations and put them on the map as major Hollywood players.
“‘Fargo’ is one of the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest American movies and, remarkably, this new ‘Fargo’ fills those big snowshoes,” said FX president John Landgraf, who previously brought “Rescue Me,” “Justified” and “Louie” to the network. “It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done.”
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It took a heck of an effort.
In 1997, just a year after the film’s release, Bruce Paltrow (“St. Elsewhere”) and Robert Palm (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) pitched a series adaptation to then-NBC president Warren Littlefield, who quickly signed up. To mark the occasion, the creators presented him with a snow globe featuring Marge bent over bloody snow next to a flipped-over car.
But then Littlefield got cold feet.
“The script was good, but it was a network television version of an iconic and brilliant film and my fear was we would disappoint the audience,” he said. “I passed.”
CBS decided to give it a go and shot a version directed by Kathy Bates and starring a pre-“Sopranos” Edie Falco as Police Chief Marge Gunderson. The pilot never made it to air.
But Littlefield, now an independent producer, never threw out the snow globe. He found himself staring at it three years ago and decided to try again.
“The world of television has changed,” he said. “Cable really embraces where this could live.”
FX was interested — with one caveat: No Marge.
Executives were concerned that audiences would be disappointed if the part was filled by anyone other than Frances McDormand, who wasn’t interested in reprising her Oscar-winning role.
In fact, none of the characters from the movie appear in the series, although Martin Freeman’s much put-upon insurance salesman and Allison Tolman’s plucky deputy sheriff will certainly feel familiar.
The biggest twist in the TV version comes courtesy of a stranger named Lorne Malvo, who’s determined to create chaos wherever he travels. The part seemed tailor-made for Thornton, who hasn’t appeared regularly on a TV series since a supporting turn in the mid-’90s on the John Ritter sitcom “Hearts Afire.”
“When I was coming up, if you went to television from film, it meant something was wrong. You might as well be doing ‘Hollywood Squares,’ ” he said. “But now it’s actually a feather in your cap to be on a great television show.”
It didn’t hurt that Thornton would once again be associated with the Coens. He starred in their films “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Intolerable Cruelty” as well as “Bad Santa,” which they produced.
“I think they’re successful because they stick to things they love and that are in their wheelhouse,” Thornton said. “That gets more rare every day.”
To be clear, the Coens did not write or direct any of episodes, but as executive producers they made some pivotal suggestions, like hiring their longtime casting director, Rachel Tenner.
“What they said to (writer) Noah (Hawley) was, ‘We’re not big fans of imitation. This is kind of strange for us because we feel like you’ve channeled us,’ ” Littlefield said. “And I think Noah may have said, ‘So am I the third Coen?’ And they said, ‘No.’ ”
Littlefield and Hawley insist that if there’s life beyond these 10 episodes, they’ll start fresh with new characters — the same approach used in FX’s “American Horror Story.” But the setting will remain rural Minnesota.
“I think there is something really compelling about the region and the Coen brothers’ style of storytelling, which is not plot-driven, but is both dark and comic,” Hawley said. “I’ve already started planning a second season where I’ll get to tell a whole other story. Until I run out of those, I think it’s a really fun challenge.”