The critics heaping raves on Fargo, the new 10-part series on cable's FX channel, keep describing its lead actress Allison Tolman as "an unknown." But Dallas theatergoers know her well. She's that funny, bold performer who starred in plays and musicals at Second Thought Theatre (a company she co-founded with fellow Baylor grads), Kitchen Dog and other stages for the better part of the aughts.
A few profiles this week have even called Tolman a "Chicago actress." Hold on, now. She moved to Chicago five years ago to go through Second City's comedy program, but she's a Texan, dadgummit. Don't let that "you betcha" accent on Fargo fool ya.
Judging from Tuesday night's debut on FX, Tolman, who gets second billing on the show's opening credits, deserves star status. Time to go Hollywood. (She actually is moving to L.A. this spring.) She's that impressive in her first big break into television. As Fresh Air's TV critic David Bianculli said during his glowing review of Fargo on NPR Monday, Tolman "is a relative unknown ... but not for much longer."
How good is she on Fargo? So good, she stands out amid a cast of really famous actors, including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Keith Carradine, Bob Odenkirk and Colin Hanks.
The show revolves around her character. The 90-minute series premiere, titled "The Crocodile's Dilemma" and written by showrunner Noah Hawley, who's written all 10 episodes this season, set up Tolman's character, Bemidji, Minnesota, police deputy Molly Solverson, as one of two central figures in the main storyline. The other is Freeman's character, homicidal loser Lester Nygaard. (If renewed for a second season, Fargo will introduce a new cast, new characters and a new set of crimes to be solved.)
Like Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson in the 1996 Coen Brothers movie, Tolman's smart, no-nonsense Molly Solverson leads an investigation into a strange one-car accident out on the snow-covered prairie. (Though the show is done in the style of the film, all the characters, locations and situations are different.) In the trunk of the abandoned car is a dead deer. A few yards away sits the frozen corpse of a man wearing only boxer shorts. As Molly correctly susses out (and we know she's right because we viewers have seen how the accident happened), the dead man couldn't have been the driver. There's blood on the steering wheel but no blood on him.
"You'll make a good chief," says Molly's boss, Police Chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle). He's dead before the end of the first installment, another victim of ruthless contract killer Vern Malvo (Thornton), who becomes involved in Nygaard's woeful life during a chance meeting in a hospital waiting room. Malvo was the driver of that crashed (stolen) car. He's decided to stick around Bemidji. That means Molly will have to unravel a whole mess of murders.
What's required of Tolman as an actress on Fargo is that ineluctable quality that makes viewers (and critics) like her on sight and want to tune in for more. Shouldn't be a problem. She's certainly got that "it" factor on the small screen. Even costumed in bulky cop clothes, an unflattering ear-flap hat and heavy boots, she's a dish. (Maybe the winterwear is what made New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley describe Tolman as "heavyset." We note that Stanley didn't attribute any weight-related descriptions to the men on the show.)
Great actors always have something going on behind their eyes. From her first line -- "Cold enough for ya, Chief?" -- to her wide-eyed discovery of a dead woman in Nygaard's basement, and then a flying tackle onto two fighting teenagers out in a snowy backyard, Tolman's Molly is one funny, surprising move after another. Hawley's writing has made her brave, intelligent, humble and caring, something seen in her interactions with her dad, played by Keith Carradine.
The show successfully captures the weird cadence of Minnesota-speak, too, just like the film. This from a motel clerk to her hapless son: "You don't have the sense God gave a clam, do ya?" And "Heck, just ... heck," says Freeman, losing all traces of Britishness in his performance as Nygaard. Freeman's such an expert at stuttering and fidgeting. He does it as Dr. Watson on the BBC's Sherlock series. And he does it here to great effect.
This Fargo has that Coen Brothers way with stark visuals, too, employing art direction not typically seen on TV. The POV from inside a fridge as the door is opened (hello, Jell-O). A poster of one goldfish swimming against the school, with the words "What if you're right and they're wrong?" -- just before Nygaard bludgeons his nagging wife with a hammer. Cartoons blaring on a TV in the background during a family argument. The last half-hour, tweeted Dallas TV critic Ed "Uncle Barky" Bark, was "some of the most perfectly composed TV you'll ever see." Author Joyce Carol Oates was tweet-watching, too: "What to make of the TV Fargo? Does it owe something to No Country for Old Men as well?"
There is a touch of No Country for Old Men in Fargo-for-TV, at least in Thornton's performance as the smirking assassin. And maybe a hint of the original Fargo's Marge in Tolman's Molly, if only because Tolman and Frances McDormand both look like real women and act without the acting showing.
Tolman watched the premiere at a viewing party in Chicago. A friend made cupcakes with bullet holes that dripped red icing. She posted a picture of one on her Instagram. Fargo airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on cable's FX network.
See also: Allison Tolman: Going Far with a Starring Role in FX's Fargo Series