Monday, October 12, 2015

'Fargo' Season 2

The first season of FX's Fargo was a pleasant surprise, a seemingly ill-advised project that turned out to effectively capture the tone of the movie it was based on while confidently standing on its own. Thanks to solid work from an eclectic cast (including a breakout performance from Allison Tolman), sharp writing and a strong cinematic look, Fargo ended up being one of the best shows of 2014. As fans of True Detective have learned, following up such a strong self-contained story is not easy, and the first four episodes of Fargo's second season are not nearly as effective as the beginning of its first, although they do feature some strong performances and a confident style.

Creator Noah Hawley moves further away from the central themes and narrative elements of the Coen brothers' movie, which allows him more freedom but also makes the show a bit less focused. Set in 1979, the new season is a prequel of sorts to the first season, with Patrick Wilson playing Lou Solverson, who was a retired cop (played by Keith Carradine) in the first season. Here he's in the prime of his career, with a wife (Cristin Milioti) who's been diagnosed with cancer and a young daughter who'll grow up to be a cop just like her dad (and be played by Allison Tolman). The season's various storylines kick off with a bizarre triple murder in a roadside diner, and they end up encompassing Lou, his sheriff father-in-law (Ted Danson), a Fargo-based organized crime family (led by a matriarch played by Jean Smart), some carpet-bagging mobsters from Kansas City, and a seemingly mild-mannered couple played by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.

The storyline featuring Dunst and Plemons comes closest to the Jerry Lundegaard/Lester Nygaard "average Joe in over his head" plots from the movie and the first season, respectively, but the danger for these characters comes more from dull ineptitude than the banal evil that made Jerry and Lester fascinating. There's much richer material in the mob storyline, with a practically Shakespearean drama of succession as the patriarch (Michael Hogan) of the Gerhardt crime family suffers a stroke, and his relatives vie for control, with dangerous and deadly results. Bokeem Woodbine comes closest to fulfilling Billy Bob Thornton's role from the first season as an agent of pure chaos, but his character (one of the Kansas City mob's enforcers) is more human in his motivations. Overall, the season is less tense and engrossing than the first season, but it also has a wider scope and ambition.

Hawley and the episode's directors bring a rich cinematic style to the show, using split screens and other period-appropriate techniques to evoke the era, and the actors dive into the often mannered dialogue, giving it a vibrant liveliness. Burn Notice's Jeffrey Donovan (as a particularly short-tempered Gerhardt), Woodbine and Brad Garrett probably stand out the most, but all of the actors do good work. Some of Hawley's stranger touches (UFO references that recall the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There; scenes from made-up Ronald Reagan movies) are a bit difficult to fathom in these early episodes, but they may make more sense as the season goes on. I'll be watching to see, although not with the same level of excitement that I had in the previous season.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.

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