Be careful, or you'll find yourself adrift in 'Fargo'

I kept thinking as I was screening the new FX series, "Fargo," that it wasn't all that impressive.

And then, I looked up and realized I had been watching for three hours straight.


I guess it depends on how you define impressive.

At best, it's one of the finest new series of the TV year. At worst, it's definitely worth an hour of your time to check out tonight at 10 on FX.

But be careful, it's easy to lose yourself as I did in this world of endless snow, hopelessly flat lands, coffee shops, down jackets, small town facades, brutality, blood, drugs and slaughter.

And do you really have time to get caught up in another TV series? I didn't think I did. But I'm there.

The first thing to understand is that this 10-episode series is in no way simply a downsized TV version of the 1996 film by the Coen brothers.

Yes, it's the same bleak and wonderful tundra world of central and western Minnesota where you can look west from the city limits of St. Cloud and practically see straight through the blowing snow into the Dakotas. At least, that's what it felt like when I started my newspaper career at the St. Cloud Times.

But it involves different crimes and a different focal point of onscreen energy. And that makes all the difference in the world. Here the heat comes from a mysterious character named Lorne Malvo played by Billy Bob Thornton.

The FX press materials say of Malvo: "Some might call him a drifter, others a gun for hire, others still a spirit, or trickster, or devil."

That's good stuff. He is definitely a trickster figure -- and once you start talking trickster figures, you are into something that's a lot deeper than an hour of entertainment.

Whereas the Coen brothers merged true crime with dark comedy, writer Noah Hawley has crafted a modern-day western. This is Minnesota as a postmodern frontier, and Malvo is the malevolent force of nature and darkness that constantly tears at the fragile veneer of civility that the denizens of this frontier have managed to stitch together out of their bottomless coffee cups, cinnamon danish, cheery sweaters, church suppers and friendly smiles.

That kind of a mythic role is just about the hardest thing in the world to play on the small screen of TV, but Thornton absolutely nails it from the first time he focuses those assassin's eyes on his prey and smiles a deceptively beguiling little smile that is part schoolboy and part machine-gun lunatic.

I only saw the first four hours of the series. But that's only because that's all FX sent me.

Had they sent all 10, I'd probably still be sitting in front of my TV looking into the eyes of the devil and thinking about all that snow -- and the horror that lives, breathes and licks its chops just beneath the surface of what we think of as our ordered lives.

"Fargo" premieres at 10 tonight on FX.