It's Not Just Tax Day - It's 'Fargo' Day!

Most years, for many people, April 15 is among the worst days of the year. Even if tax payments aren’t due, the day is often a time of giant stress, scrambling to finish filling out forms at the last minute, waiting in punishing lines at the post office, dealing with one fresh hell after another in the online submission process, etc.

But this year, April 15 comes with an unexpected thrill -- the arrival of a new television franchise that is easily the best new program of the year to date and may very likely retain that distinction throughout the rest of 2014. We don’t know how we will react to the many new shows that will debut on broadcast, basic and pay cable in the next eight months, but it is going to take some major magic for any of them to surpass the new FX limited series franchise “Fargo,” which premieres at 10 p.m. tonight.

Even in this golden age of television drama, I can’t think of a smarter, more engrossing, more fascinating -- and at times, more challenging -- viewing experience than the four episodes of “Fargo” that were made available to critics in advance of tonight’s premiere. That’s not to say it’s better than CBS’ “The Good Wife,” AMC’s “Mad Men,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” or Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” to name four of the very best; only that it belongs alongside them on television’s top shelf. Of course, my opinion could change as “Fargo” runs its course -- it isn’t all that unusual for shows that start strong to unravel as they play out -- but nothing that I have seen so far in “Fargo” -- which starts off stronger than most -- even hints at the possibility of disappointments to come.

Inspired by and perhaps very loosely based on the 1996 movie of the same name, but sharing none of the same characters or story lines as the film, “Fargo” revolves around residents in and near a small town in northern Minnesota where the winters are long, frigid and unforgiving and the people are tough in that no-nonsense, midwestern kind of way. It is most easily classified as a crime drama, but like HBO’s “True Detective” before it, “Fargo” does not belong in the same category as any of the many successful crime franchises on broadcast and basic cable. Both shows exist in worlds of their own, populated by fascinating, richly drawn characters that make every minute worth watching.

That’s the singular strength of “Fargo”: Even viewers who don’t particularly enjoy crime dramas -- or graphic depictions of violence, which this series does not shy away from -- will appreciate its characters, all of whom are so marvelously realized that they alone are reason enough to watch. They are distinctive in the way of so many characters in “Breaking Bad” -- full of surprises and, when properly motivated, capable of doing wildly unexpected things that make perfect sense within the context of the moment.

“Fargo” is best appreciated without any prior knowledge of the story to come, so there will be no spoilers here. For now, it’s enough simply to note that Billy Bob Thornton is endlessly fascinating as Lorne Malvo, a mysterious outsider whose arrival in the small town of Bemidji sets in motion a series of brutal murders and other strange events, and Martin Freeman, fresh off the BBC drama “Sherlock” and the recent “Hobbit” movies, is similarly sensational as Lester Nygaard, a torturously timid insurance salesman whose encounter with Malvo changes his life and the lives of everyone around him. Both of these accomplished actors may look back on their roles here as among the best of their careers.

But much of “Fargo” belongs to Colin Hanks as Gus Grimly, an insecure police detective from nearby Duluth who becomes embroiled in the mysteries of Bemidji, and especially newcomer Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson, a deputy in Bemidji determined to sort out and stop the multiple murders that have rocked the small town she loves. It is not an insult to anyone involved to point out that Tolman at times steals the show from the many more experienced actors around her.

Everyone else in the cast is equally fine, including Bob Odenkirk, Kate Walsh, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg and Glenn Howerton (of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”). They all play characters with enough quirks to make them feel different from any we have seen on television before.

Meanwhile, the overall story told over the ten hours of “Fargo” (which may continue in the future with new casts and story lines, just like “True Detective”) builds nicely during the first four, primarily because every twist and turn works in the service of its great characters. Credit for that goes to writer Noah Hawley and directors Adam Bernstein, Randall Einhorn, Colin Bucksey, Scott Winant and Matt Shakman, all of whom appear to have worked in perfect sync with one another.

Former NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield serves as executive producer and this is clearly a passion project for him. Throughout his career at the network Littlefield was always an energetic supporter of every series on NBC, but based on a recent conversation I had with him I can honestly say that I haven’t seen him so excited about anything since “ER” came along.  

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