The first two seasons of Fargo were magic, inspiring joy and awe and a constant question of how anyone in the world could have pulled this off. Adapting one of the greatest and most distinct films by the idiosyncratic Coen brothers into a TV series seemed like a folly, but writer Noah Hawley made it look easy. Year one’s plot briefly intersected with the movies, and certain characters were designed to evoke memories of Marge Gunderson and Jerry Lundegaard, but it almost immediately felt like its own confident thing. Season two’s ’70s mob war was in many ways even more thrilling and new, while still maintaining a tonal and stylistic connection to previous versions. It was a feat so improbable, yet pulled off with such grace, that Hawley could have made the Statue of Liberty disappear next and it would have made sense.
With the third season, which debuts Wednesday night at 10, it’s a bit easier to see how the trick works. Hawley has again assembled a top-notch cast — Ewan McGregor in a dual role, Carrie Coon (pulling off her own double act this month in prestige TV, between here and The Leftovers), Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Stuhlbarg, and David Thewlis, among others — given them colorful characters (with delightful names!) to play, and surrounded them with memorable incident and imagery. But through the two episodes sent to critics, it’s also the first of the three seasons to create the impression of a Fargo formula, where you mix and match the same handful of components over and over and over again, add a few metric tons of snow, and voila.
McGregor plays siblings (but not twins) Emmit and Ray Stussy, who many years ago were offered two inheritances from their father: a stamp collection and a red Corvette. Ray pushed for the car, when in fact the rare stamps were the real prize, which Emmit used to build an empire as “the parking lot king of Minnesota,” while Ray’s parole officer job isn’t even enough to keep the Corvette running without periodic handouts from his older brother. Decades of resentment, prodding from Ray’s parolee girlfriend Nikki Swango (Winstead) — who dreams of building a fortune with Ray through competitive Bridge tournaments and sponsorships — and a case of mistaken identity involving the stepfather of small town cop Gloria Burgle (Coon) kick off this season’s plot, which gets complicated when gangster VM Varga (Thewlis) muscles in on the business Emmit runs with Sy Feltz (Stuhlbarg).
There is, as always, a certain degree of meta cheekiness to the endeavor, which continues to deploy the movie’s famous, and fake, disclaimer about this being “a true story” where the names have been changed at the request of the survivors, even as this season opens with a scene where a police officer warns a suspect, “We are not here to tell stories. We are here to tell the truth.” Hawley, and the Coens before him, has to toe a very narrow line to keep the story feeling sincere and self-aware at the same time, which becomes harder to do when most of the characters feel like variations on themes we’ve encountered so often before in this world. The Stussy brothers to varying degrees have echoes of Jerry from the movie and Lester Nygaard from the first season, Ray and Nikki’s relationship can’t help recalling the doomed Blumquist marriage from season two, Varga is a gleeful crook with a colorful way of speaking that evokes Mike Milligan, and even Gloria’s bluntness doesn’t distinguish her that much yet from Marge Gunderson or either of the Solversons.
Of course, it’s early doings, and some characters like Mike took more than a few episodes to fully reveal all their depths in past seasons. But when you take away the surprise that this show works at all, then fill it with characters who mainly remind you of other characters, it can risk coming across as a hollow writing exercise.