“Fargo”: For those who remember that miracle of watching the Coen brothers’ deeply dark and hilarious 1996 masterpiece unfurl across the big screen, FX’s bold, brave experiment in cinematic crossover takes some getting used to, but it’s well worth the effort.
Written by Noah Hawley (with the Coens' blessing), this “Fargo” is at once eerily similar and completely different than the film that inspired it. Yes, we are once again traveling down a narrow strip of highway that bifurcates the snowy plains of Minnesota into a tiny town where the local accent is a running joke and the introduction of violence is about to turn everything inside out.
As in the film, there is a hit man, played with dark brilliance by Billy Bob Thornton, a whining milquetoast (Martin Freeman) and a canny if generally good-hearted female police officer (Allison Tolman).There are murders, fumbling lies and the blinking bewilderment of people forced from the numbing reverie of congenial ignorance; this last provides much of the humor.
But where “Fargo” the film delighted in revealing the horrific consequences of half-baked plans and spineless greed, “Fargo” the series has a more purposeful driving force.
That would be Thornton’s Lorne Malvo, a fixer, assassin and freelance Lucifer who dallies and dances to his own seductive and destructive tune. Playing merry hell with anyone who comes in contact with him, he dispenses wisdom and occasionally mercy, but mostly vengeance aimed at those who have forgotten they are still part of the food chain.
The film and series do have a point of narrative convergence, but it does not reveal itself until Episode 4, and by that time it’s all but unnecessary. This “Fargo” is neither prequel, sequel or remake. Instead it's a tonal accompaniment, a little more than kin, a little less than kind and a whole new breed of television. Tuesdays, FX 10 p.m.
“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”:I have never issued a spoiler alert for a pick, but if you have not yet seen the new "Captain America" movie or this show before, and you have any interest in doing same, then stop reading, go catch up and come on back.
Like “Fargo,” “S.H.I.E.L.D” has obvious movie tie-ins, obvious being the key word. In an unprecedented move, the folks at Marvel launched the series as a narrative companion to the film franchise; the action of the show began in the wake of the events of the “The Avengers.”
Now, it turns out, much of it has been establishing syncopation leading up to a main event: the discovery that S.H.I.E.L.D has long been infected by the sleeper agents of HYDRA, the fascist organization Captain America fought during World War II.
This revelation was made almost concurrently on big screen and small, with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” premiering this past weekend and a two-episode arc on “S.H.I.E.L.D” that resolved this past week.
But where the film ended with vague promises of retribution and rebuilding, the series will, presumably, carry them out.
After virtually every member of the series’ leads appeared to be a spy, the April 8 episode wound up with all the HYDRA agents seemingly brought to justice (Bill Paxton, we knew you were too good to be true!). Then a coda revealed the stalwart Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) as an apparent deep-sleep member of HYDRA.
I say “apparent” because there is a very good chance he is simply going under cover in an attempt to root out the remaining HYDRA agents, which Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) went to great pains to mention.
I’ve loved the show, flaws and all, since it began. Now the series has the broad and sturdy narrative foundation it needs, and even those who dwell more on the holes than the fiber have to admit that a series spun to enrich and connect big action films is a crazy-great experiment in storytelling. ABC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.
“Mad Men”: The show that launched the recent renaissance of television is entering its final, albeit two-part, season, and as per usual, it will not be rushed. The slow 'n' stately season premiere came with the now-signature request from creator Matthew Weiner that critics reveal Absolutely Nothing about the plot.
Which is, frankly, pretty hilarious. Season premieres of "Mad Men" are almost always more exposition than plot — Pete's sweater may be the biggest reveal of the hour. But this year Weiner did ask nicely, so I'll stop there.
Suffice to say that all the main characters are alive and — though scattered from their original Madison Avenue nest — still working in advertising. They are all also older if not wiser (though some of them are — we love you Joan!). And if Don Draper remains one of the more taciturn leads of modern television, he has lost some of his infuriating sheen and seems at times, (um, spoiler alert?) almost human.
Still quite a looker, though, as is the show, which has carried its evocative attention to period detail through six seasons and several decades, a feat in itself worthy of celebration. Sundays, AMC, 10 p.m.