It had no business working.
Who in his right mind would think to take the Coen brothers' “Fargo” – the most acclaimed movie by two of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers in a generation – and turn it into a TV show? It had already been tried in the late '90s, with a pre-“Sopranos” Edie Falco as Marge in a straightforward adaptation of the film; it was terrible, and CBS never aired it. Even after last year's FX version – not an adaptation, but a second cousin once removed – received acclaim for the way writer Noah Hawley managed to evoke the Coens' voice without being a poor imitator, those who hadn't seen it were skeptical.
A new season of “Fargo” debuts Monday at 10 on FX, with an impressive collection of actors – including Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart, and Jeffrey Donovan – most of whom admitted to reporters back in the summer that they hadn't so much as tried watching season 1 until they got offered a role on the show.
“'Why do it?'” Danson recalled thinking. “'The movie was great.'”
The TV show, though, was a wonder, full of rich characters, gorgeous imagery (set in Minnesota and North Dakota, the series films in snowy Calgary), and the same mix of macabre tragedy and skewed comedy that typifies not just “Fargo,” but many of the Coens' best films.
The second season may be even better than the first.
Set in 1979, the new season (I've seen the first four episodes) shifts the focus from clever cop Molly Solverson to her father Lou, played in the first season by Keith Carradine, and as a younger man here by Patrick Wilson. Lou's a state trooper, raising young Molly and preparing for the worst about cancer-stricken wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti), whose father Hank (Danson) is the sheriff in their hometown of Luverne, MN. The older Lou alluded to something terrible he was part of in the '70s, and now we get to see it: a war between Fargo's leading crime family, the Gerhardts, and a syndicate from Kansas City looking to perform a hostile takeover.
The first season had such a deep bench of colorful characters that it's easy to forget some of them (say, Kate Walsh's bitter, horny mob wife) a year and a half later. If anything, season 2 is even more packed, including the Solverson clan, the Gerhardts – led by Michael Hogan and Jean Smart's Otto and Floyd, with sons Dodd (Donovan), Rye (Kieran Culkin), and Bear (Angus Sampson) providing both muscle and hardscrabble palace intrigue – Kansas City enforcer Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), who travels everywhere with a pair of silent but deadly twin brothers named Kitchen, and Luverne townsfolk like local conspiracy theorist Karl (Nick Offerman), butcher's apprentice Ed (Plemons), and Ed's perky-on-the-outside, seething-on-the-inside wife Peggy (Dunst).
It's a bigger field and a larger gallery of players, but that and an occasional fondness for overhead shots of the local roadways are about all that “Fargo” season 2 and “True Detective” season 2 have in common. Here's an anthology miniseries follow-up that recaptures all that worked well in the original, even as it's forging its own identity.
So there's still that irrepressible sense of upper Midwestern politeness, even in the face of horror and madness, and given spectacular voice by Wilson. He doesn't much resemble the young Keith Carradine, but the role's otherwise a perfect fit for the contrast between his bland, square-jawed demeanor and the obvious intelligence that's always flashing underneath. Watching Lou slowly but surely untangle the mess he's been handed gives you a fine idea of where Molly got her investigative gifts (though the story wisely doesn't forget that Betsy is also a cop's daughter), and Wilson's eyes are constantly saying so much more than the spare dialogue Hawley has given him. Whether he's staring down the entire Gerhardt army solo or making small talk with the wife he fears won't be with him much longer, he's got enormous reserves of inner strength and smarts and charm.
But everyone around him is fantastic, too. Plemons, carrying the extra weight he put on for another role, looks eerily like Matt Damon, and he makes Ed into a classic film noir sap, an everyman too slow and trusting to realize the world of trouble his Peggy (the liveliest Dunst has been on screen in forever) has gotten him into. Woodbine, Culkin, Brad Garrett (as a middle manager for the KC mob), and Donovan are all having a great time in their '70s finery. Donovan's perhaps having too good a time – imagine his hammiest “Burn Notice” undercover role, then add muttonchops and a cigar butt – but it's hard not to smile at hearing Dodd order a baker to serve him a chocolate glaze, with the “a” in “glaze” elongated for about a week and a half.
The new season occasionally tries too hard to drop in period references to Love Canal, Nixon (who'd been out of office for five years at this point), and Jimmy Carter's speech about America's malaise. But the clothes and hairstyles feel exactly right for the period and location, and the soundtrack skips over all the usual suspects in favor of some lesser-known tunes by Devo, Yamasuki, and even Burl Ives, to help set the quirky but serious tone. And where the first season's visual language was very much based on the “Fargo” movie, season 2 gets more adventurous, particularly with its frequent – and very '70s – use of split-screen to keep us up to date on what all the parties are doing in a given moment. Hawley makes his directorial debut with the season's second episode; it, like all the others, is a pleasure just to look at.
Throughout, “Fargo” continues to maintain that delicate balance between horror and slapstick. Terrible things happen to people in this story – sometimes, even after they're dead – and the Gerhardts are obviously a dangerous bunch, yet the show manages to find laughs in the family's tricky internal dynamics, just as it allows Danson's Hank to be both kindly ol' grampa and a lawman who's much tougher than he seems at first.
There have been a lot of moments to hold your breath so far with “Fargo.” First, would it be a complete fiasco that might somehow sully our memories of the film? Then, once it was obviously good, how long could it keep it up? Then, would it satisfyingly tie up its sprawling story? And then, could the show possibly do it again for another season?
Exhale. By now, it's clear that the first season wasn't a fluke, or a miracle, but a sturdy piece of work made by people who have a fundamental command of this world and its tone, and who can reasonably be expected to keep it going for a while.
Is “Fargo” still great? You betcha.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org