There's a little too much 'Fargo' in the new season of 'Fargo,' but the trip is still worth taking
Three years have passed since we last saw "Fargo," creator Noah Hawley's captivating FX anthology series that greatly expanded on the darkly comedic Coen brothers film, but it might as well be decades. A lot has happened to us lately, and to television as well, which means past seasons of "Fargo" feel more of a piece with the bracing, excellent shows of an already faded heyday -- "Breaking Bad," "Boardwalk Empire," "True Detective" and the like.
All of those, "Fargo" included, put a premium on human complexity (especially the nature of evil), tied in narrative knots with a stirring sense of the ironic and philosophical, and a flourish on graphic violence. We're a little different at this particular cultural moment and, to some extent, so is "Fargo." It's still violent and still studiously weird, but changed.
The fourth season (premiering Sunday) ambitiously builds on what seems destined to become a rich and sprawling tapestry of the story of organized crime in the American Midwest.
This chapter, set in Kansas City in the winter of 1950, extends the original Coen notion of a Fargo of the imagination, with multiple meanings -- a "far go," be it rural Minnesota or the Dakotas or now Missouri and Kansas; a barren and windswept part of the soul, a figurative and occasionally literal place where one bumps against the best and worst in people. To borrow a Bertrand Russell quote that precedes one of this season's better episodes, "Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim."
That's what "Fargo" has always been about, and those are useful words to keep in mind as a viewer struggles to get into Season 4's initial episodes, which are too droll by half and introduce a daunting number of characters and conflicts. (It's why, I suspect, Sunday's premiere offers two episodes, in hopes of moving more quickly to the better stuff.)
Hawley and company are in no hurry to help us sort through them, but there is a strong design and structure being formed here, and patience is rewarded. This, too, harks back to the sort of television I was reviewing five and 10 years ago -- heavily burdened, intentionally opaque, often hypermasculine and artistically grandiloquent. Hawley has more than proved that he's a worthy foe of tropes and cliches, but here, his vision can at times feel detrimentally self-indulgent.
What does work here, at times terrifically, is the complete shift in setting. "Fargo" opens with a vivid overview of the (fictionalized) history of mob rule and corruption in Kansas City, beginning with European Jews in the early 1900s, who were set upon and eventually overthrown by Irish immigrants, who, by midcentury, have been violently usurped by Italians. When these factions reached periods of uneasy truces, each mob boss would offer custody of his eldest son to the other mob boss -- an honor swap meant to ensure a cease-fire. It becomes a relevant aspect to the story overall.
Into this, with a modern sensibility that is decades ahead of its time and nevertheless a brilliant example of how even period dramas can benefit from a direct act of diversity, the Italians now find themselves facing off with a Black-run crime syndicate, arrivals from the Great Migration, headed by the coolly fearsome Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) and his right-hand man and mentor, Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman).
The Italians are controlled by the Fadda family; eldest son Josto (Jason Schwartzman) finds himself in charge after the unexpected demise of his father -- blamed on Cannon's gang, but also on a hospital's refusal to treat Italians. Whatever plans Josto has for his father's mob are interrupted by the arrival of his brutishly cruel brother, Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito), an undermining presence who attempts to take over.
Many of "Fargo's" trademark moves are intact -- comic misunderstandings that result in gruesome deaths, etc. They're harder to recognize, cloaked as they are in what for all appearances plays like a mafia drama. If that's your bag (and your red-checkered tablecloth), you're all set; some may yearn for "Fargo's" previous premises of bumbling amateurs and blithely courageous protagonists who lived at a remove from big-time criminals.
Everything is much more muddled here, but watchability is never the issue. "Fargo" provides plenty to look at, much of it forlornly beautiful. Listening, too, is a pleasure, as the dialogue drips eloquently off the tongues of even its most reprehensible characters. ("You know what's wrong with your country?" Salvatore asks, in broken English, of one of his quaking victims. "Your Jesus looks like a lady. And everybody thinks they gonna be president one day. So nobody do the job they got.")
It's odd that Rock and Schwartzman, ostensibly in the marquee roles, are among the last of "Fargo's" latest ensemble to register. Both characters, as well as the performances, simmer along without much effect.
It's the peripheral characters here who really shine: Jessie Buckley as Oraetta Mayflower, a hyperactive hospital nurse with an addiction to poisoning her patients (she also has this season's strongest Minnesota accent); E'myri Crutchfield as Ethelrida Smutny, the nosy teenage daughter of a local mortician; Karen Aldrige and Kelsey Asbille as a wild pair of escaped convicts named Zelmare and Swanee; and Timothy Olyphant as Dick "Deafy" Wickware, a devoutly Mormon U.S. Marshal determined to catch the fugitives, even as it puts him at the center of a mob war.
The season's standout performances belong to Ben Whishaw as Rabbi Milligan (a hardened survivor of the city's previous standoffs); and Jack Huston, who gave such a haunting performance in "Boardwalk Empire," as Odis Weff, a Kansas City police detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder -- a symptom of which is singing "Ten Little Indians" under his breath when things get frighteningly tense. It's one of details that is so very "Fargo."
It's also an indicator that there might be too much "Fargo" in this "Fargo." An episode down the road diverts to rural Kansas, in black-and-white footage (Dorothy's world, it's own kind of far-go) and only then does a viewer really begin to feel the show fulfilling its promise. The road is long, but worth traveling.
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"Fargo" (2 hours, 45 minutes) returns with a double-episode premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday on FX. Episodes 1 and 2 will be available for streaming Monday on FX on Hulu.