It tells its own story, but overlaps the film, so there's an interesting familiarity yet you don't feel like you're just watching the movie all over again. And it has an impressively strong cast, headed by Billy Bob Thornton, who was absolutely terrific. Also very good is Martin Freeman (who plays Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit films, Dr. Watson in Sherlock from PBS/BBC, and was in the original British series of The Office.) He's basically the equivalent of William H. Macy here. His Minnesooota accent works, though it occasionally comes and goes, but he plays hapless and caught-in-personal-hell beautifully. Colin Hanks is one of the stars, as well, as a policeman, though he only has a small appearance in the first episode, but it's a great scene. The "Frances McDormand role" is played by Allison Tolman. She doesn't try to morph the character as a copy, though isn't as memorable -- but hey, to be fair, McDormand won the Oscar -- but does a good job, and I suspect her character will grow. It already does a bit through the pilot
What surprised me is how they kept the bleakness of the film -- in some ways it's already even more bleak, which is saying a lot, considering the wood-chipper scene, something I didn't expect for a TV series. (Make no mistake, it has moments that are seriously bleak. Not wood-chipper bleak, but that's a pretty high standard...) However there's great charm to it, as well. For reasons I won't get into, so as not to give anything away, the pilot didn't quite have the empathy of the movie (even dark as that was...), though it still was involving enough.
Visually, they try to replicate the crisp, stark look of the feature film and do so beautifully, and the movie captures the original's totally-odd atmosphere and that flat dialogue really well, while never dragging. I assume that will be the case after 10 episodes. And I'll be intrigued to see how they build and twist this as the limited series goes along.
I'm particularly glad that this is a limited series, telling a specific and contained story. I think it would be odd if they just made it a continuing series without a structure. That said, I'm sure that if it does great in the ratings (and I'm told that the audience for the pilot was in fact very big), they'll try to figure out a way of bringing in back. But -- if they do bring it back -- I suspect they'll do the same thing, come up with another contained story for the year. That might be a bit odd, but I leave that to them...