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

Apr 15, 2014
Originally published on April 24, 2014 7:30 am

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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Tonight, CBS becomes the latest network turning to an old formula - trying to replicate the success of a hit movie by turning it into a TV show. But their retake of the comedic flick "Bad Teacher" doesn't get very high marks from NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: TV's "Bad Teacher" is a self-centered, blonde gold-digger who is a little harsh with her nerdy students.


ARI GRAYNOR: (as Meredith) OK, look. It gets better. Just not right away and honestly not for everybody. It'll probably only get better for one of you.

DEGGANS: Pretty much a copy of the self-centered blonde gold-digger in the film "Bad Teacher," played by Cameron Diaz.


CAMERON DIAZ: (as Elizabeth) You are sensitive.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (as student) Yes. Thank you.

DIAZ: (as Elizabeth) It's not a compliment. You have some rough road ahead of you. Seventh grade is not your moment.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (as student) Yeah. Eight grade will be better.

DIAZ: (as Elizabeth) Probably not.

DEGGANS: This is the big problem with CBS's clone of a not very good movie from 2011. TV's "Bad Teacher" just copies the characters and copies the situations. Here Diaz's character turns down a date with a co-worker, played by Jason Segel.


JASON SEGEL: (as Russell) Hey, uh, it might be too soon, but you want to, like, grab a bite or something sometime?

DIAZ: (as Elizabeth) You still a gym teacher?

SEGEL: (as Russell) I am, yeah.

DIAZ: (as Elizabeth) Then no.

DEGGANS: And here's TV's recycled version of the same lame joke.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as coach) Maybe I was wrong about you.

GRAYNOR: (as Meredith) Ugh. It's called deodorant, dude. Look into it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as coach) Or maybe not. But either way, we should hang out sometime.

GRAYNOR: (as Meredith) You're a gym teacher. I'm never going to sleep with you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as coach) We all do things we never thought we'd do, Miss Davis.

DEGGANS: Of course we know - in both cases - she's going to end up with the guy. But the center of the film is the character's transformation from heartless bad girl to a better person. TV's "Bad Teacher" does that in a half an hour. So how does this one note joke last over an entire season?

The best TV translations recreate a film's vibe. And no television show has restored the thrill of watching a beloved movie masterpiece like FX's version of "Fargo." The vibe here is centered on cold, rural, eccentric Bemidji, Minnesota. Police chief Vern Thurman and Deputy Molly Solverson are investigating several odd deaths.


ALLISON TOLMAN: (as Molly) Cold enough for you, chief?

SHAWN DOYLE: (as Vern) Supposed to get down to negative 10 later.

TOLMAN: (as Molly) Yeah. I heard that. Don't much like the sound of negative.

DOYLE: (as Vern) I thought I'd strip down to my shorts, work on my tan.

DEGGANS: In the movie, the police chief was a very pregnant woman, played by Frances McDormand. But she greeted a crime scene with the same folksy charm and a cup of coffee.


FRANCES MCDORMAND: (as Margie) Hiya, Lou. Whoo. Whatcha got there?

BRUCE BOHNE: (as Lou) Margie. Thought you might need a little warm-up.

MCDORMAND: (as Margie) Thanks a bunch. So what's the deal now? Terry says triple homicide?

BOHNE: (as Lou) Yeah. It looks pretty bad. Two of 'em are over here. Watch your step, Margie.

DEGGANS: Plus, "Fargo" the TV show gives us two great new characters: British actor Martin Freeman as a loser insurance salesman, and professional eccentric Billy Bob Thornton as a creepy traveling hitman. They meet sharing a soda, stuck in a hospital waiting room. An oblivious Martin Freeman confides to the hit man he's being tormented by a local bully.


BILLY BOB THORNTON: (as Lorne) This is a man who doesn't deserve to draw breath.

MARTIN FREEMAN: (as Lester) Heck, you're so sure about it. Maybe you should just kill him for me.

THORNTON: (as Lorne) You're asking me to kill this man.

FREEMAN: (as Lester) No. That was - I was joking.

DEGGANS: The hit man kills the bully anyway. And there's fallout even fans of the film can't predict. FX's "Fargo" works on two levels. It delivers all the nostalgia of a film fans adore with the creative juice of a new work. And that's a lesson CBS's "Bad Teacher" just hasn't learned yet.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic and you hear him right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.