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Murder with a folksy accent: ‘Fargo’ hits the small screen

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Murder with a folksy accent: ‘Fargo’ hits the small screen
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Eighteen years ago, Joel and Ethan Coen took our blowy snowscapes and aggressive vowels and turned them into an Academy Award-winning film.


“Fargo” didn’t win Best Picture (though it nabbed the screenwriting award and one for best lead actress), but it did provide a glimpse of the hotdish eaters of flyover country —

a characterization about Minnesotans and North Dakotans that persists.

“Just about every time I go on a location scout, there is someone who mentions how we talk,” said Riki McManus of the Upper Minnesota Film Office. “That, ‘Yes, some people are talking that way’ or, ‘I’m not hearing that much.’ It always comes up in conversation. I’m amazed at the longevity of that.”

Brace yourself for a barrage of “you betcha” taunts, Minnesotans. “Fargo,” a 10-episode, limited TV series starring Billy Bob Thornton, premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on FX. Unlike the original, this take includes a Duluth cop, played by Colin Hanks. The show, written by Noah Hawley, has shades of the 1996 movie: A salesman without sales, a killer-for-hire, a nonplussed female deputy with sensible boot wear and plenty of common sense.

Early reviews of the series are calling it Coen caliber. Variety’s TV columnist said it possesses the tone and style of the brothers but pursues “a new tawdry true-crime tale, albeit in similar environs.”

‘Fargo’ (1996)

The original “Fargo” is the story of Jerry Lundegaard, a luckless and folksy car salesman so desperate for fast cash that he arranges to have his equally folksy wife kidnapped. He expects that his rich father-in-law will pony up the bills for the ransom ruse and that he can pocket a portion.

After a bunch of bumbles, there is dead deputy on the side of a country road, two dead civilians — one in a flipped car, the other done in like a deer from a distance.

Margie Gunderson, Brainerd’s police chief, is on the scene after a quick homemade breakfast, breathing through a wave of morning sickness.

The case of the triple homicide is linked to the kidnapping plot at a ho-hum, no sweat, slow-and-steady pace.

This all leads to the famous wood chipper scene.

The movie travels between Brainerd, Minneapolis and Fargo — famously emphasizing the regional accent and stoic Scandinavian nature of its inhabitants.

The critics mostly liked it. It has a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Washington Post likened it to a cross between “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Night of the Living Dead.”

The response

Back on its home snowscape, results were mixed — which the New York Times covered in a 1996 piece on geographical characterizations in cinema:

“In Brainerd, where part of ‘Fargo’ is set, many people are apparently not amused by the movie,” Sam Howe Verhovek wrote.  

Verhovek cited a letter written by a resident to the Brainerd Dispatch. A woman had gone to see “a spoof on the Minnesota-Swedish dialect,” but left appalled at this take on her town and reportedly added, “I paid six bucks for this trash.”

But for every claim of trash, there were plenty who saw it as a treasure.  

Mike Scholtz, a local filmmaker who grew up in Fargo, said he was in the front row for the movie’s premiere in his hometown.

“Everything about it matched my sensibilities of what a good movie should be,” the Coen brothers fan said, noting the landscape, the Paul Bunyan statue and the use of a wood chipper in a crime.

Chris Godsey, a writing studies teacher at the University of Minnesota Duluth who writes about art and music, said he preferred “Fargo” to another long-running, Minnesota-themed comedy.

“I actually have a lot more patience for the Coen brothers’ depiction of Minnesotans than Garrison Keillor’s,” he said. “I think there is much less condescension in how they portrayed Minnesotans.”

McManus saw the movie at one of its premieres in Los Angeles.

“In the first half I grumbled and sputtered and I was not happy,” she said. “I said, ‘We do not talk like that. It’s not even funny.’ Something happened halfway through that got my funny bone. And from then on I liked it.”

The TV show starts with the disclaimer that is similar to the one in the movie: The events depicted are based on a true story.

There is a long stretch of two-lane highway. There is a feisty hostage in the trunk. There is a reference to Jell-O salad.

The salesman is in the insurance biz and his wife is a bit of a nag, according to a clip of the show’s first 7 minutes, which is available for streaming.  

The ‘Fargo’ effect

For the past few years, Scholtz has been touring film festivals across the country with his regionally set documentaries “Wild Bill’s Run” and “Wicker Kittens.”

All anyone wants to talk about, he said, is Minnesota. And when they say Minnesota, they mean Fargo, Brainerd, Duluth, Minneapolis — which seem to be indistinguishable.

“This part of the country is still somewhat undiscovered,” Scholtz said. “People have mined L.A. or the south. David Lynch has mined the Pacific Northwest. The Minnesota area is something that I don’t think filmmakers have explored to death.

“I think people are fascinated by Minnesota and just don’t know it yet.”

McManus doesn’t expect this national stage to lure more film and TV productions to the area. That’s already happening, she said. Filmmakers are attracted to the monetary rebates offered to films produced in Minnesota.

“We’re definitely the flavor of the year,” she said, mentioning more than a handful of filmmakers scouting locations in this area.

Gene Shaw of Visit Duluth said he hasn’t seen any effects from Duluth mentions on television programs. Most outsiders, he said, think of Bob Dylan more than “Fargo.” When told there is a Duluth character featured in the TV series, he laughed and groaned.

“(Police Chief) Gordon (Ramsay) is not going to have a good time with this,” Shaw said.

Ramsay — who said he thought the movie was “OK” — has heard of the character.

“I can only imagine what it will look like,” he said. “Better a deputy than a chief.”

(Ramsay knows about the pop culture limelight: Author Brian Freeman has a Duluth police chief character in his crime novels; Ramsay shares a name with a famous fiery chef).

Scholtz said he’s been watching and re-watching trailers for the upcoming series. He is hoping for a hit — but he doesn’t think we will escape unscathed by the return of these characters.

“If it’s as commercially successful as it is critically acclaimed,” Scholtz said, “I think we’re going to see a lot of people making fun of our accents again.”

RELATED CONTENT: "Fargo" again highlights our Scandinavian-tinged speech

Christa Lawler
(218) 279-5536