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.
Now, it’s a fun exercise, too. There’s a palpable joy throughout, not only in the performances by actors like Thewlis and Winstead who play the more outgoing roles, but in the way that Hawley and his collaborators assemble the pieces. The show has grown more visually adventurous over the years, and while it’ll never be as stylistically crazy as Hawley’s work on Legion, scenes here dissolve into one another with hypnotic regularity, keeping characters who have yet to meet feeling like they’re all part of one big, weird story. The hair, makeup and costume choices instantly define almost every character, like the way that Varga’s casually menacing dialogue is delivered from behind a set of warped, discolored teeth. And the soundtrack is as thrillingly eclectic as ever.
This season’s set in 2010, which is the closest the show has come to the present, and it’s in many ways even more concerned with the changing tide of society than season two (set on the eve of the Reagan administration). Emmit Stussy reads of a crime in the newspaper and laments that this is “Not the Minnesota I grew up in, I tell you that.” Gloria’s ex-husband left her for a man, which her son accepts far more readily than her stepfather, and she has a wary at best relationship with the kind of technology that’s pervading every corner of policework, and life in general. It’s a dark running gag in the early episodes that Gloria is a police chief without a department, as her small-town force is in the process of being absorbed by the local sheriff’s office, and her new boss Moe Dammick (Shea Whigham) complains that she’s too much of a luddite: “You know what year it is, right? The future.”
The future has tended to be very good to Fargo, with each season getting deeper and better as they go along. And this season has more groundwork to lay at the start than the previous two, since season one had a smaller core set of characters, and season two at least had Lou Solverson as a compass point. In time, I expect the Stussy brothers to evolve into something more complex and interesting than two additional hapless middle-aged anti-hero types, for Gloria to distinguish herself more from her predecessors (and for Hawley to unleash all that Coon is capable of doing on screen), etc.
But Fargo season three hints at some limitations to this exciting new world of the anthology miniseries. You can change the era and the characters every time out, but when the creative team and the world stays roughly the same, familiarity will creep in over time the same way it does for a more traditional ongoing drama series.
And if the new season turns out to be a slightly diminished version of what came before, that’s still a pretty good place to be. Hawley may not be able to vanish the Statue of Liberty this time, but splitting Ewan McGregor in half works, too.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com