'Fargo' Season 4 Is As Good As It Gets — Again

Sep 25, 2020

When Fargo premiered on FX in 2014, the anthology miniseries promised to present its own take on the oddball spirit and quirky plots and characters of the brilliant 1996 movie by Joel and Ethan Coen. At the time, I didn't think series creator Noah Hawley could pull it off — but he did.

That first season of Fargo on FX was fabulous. And after that, just as improbably, Hawley reset the table and started all over again – different story, different characters, different setting. And, with an all-new season of Fargo, hit it out of the park a second time. Then, three years ago, Fargo showed up with an all-new, equally entertaining season 3.

Now it's back, and I no longer doubt Hawley's talent. The only thing I doubted, as I started to preview this long-awaited season 4, was whether he could extend his hat trick and emerge with yet another good-as-it-gets TV miniseries. And this season, I'm happy and a bit surprised to report, his Fargo streak continues unbroken.

Hawley himself wrote and directed the first two episodes, and they're almost absurdly ambitious. The action takes place far from Fargo, in Kansas City, Mo., and starts by introducing us to a precocious Black teenager named Ethelrida (E'Myri Crutchfield) who's dealing with racism and sexism in the year 1950.

Ethelrida gives a classroom oral report on the city's power struggles, which leads to a long, complex flashback about the various gangs who gained and lost power in the 20th century: The Jewish gang, supplanted by the Irish. The Irish, usurped by the Italians. And, as Fargo works its way up to the present, in 1950 Kansas City, we get the Irish challenged by the Black gang.

This struggle for equality and respect takes place in a long-ago era of over-sized cars and men wearing hats – but the conflicts, and even the language, sizzle with resonance to very current events. Chris Rock is absolutely terrific as Loy Cannon, the head of the new gang trying to gain power. Loy is not only tough; he's a visionary. In addition to co-existing with — and taking power from — the Italians, he also has a scheme in which he can invade the white establishment.

Rock's playing a bit older, and tougher, than you've ever seen him, and he demands respect. Early on, Fargo plays like a showcase for him, with the narrative revolving solidly around his character's fortunes. But no. Hawley, by now, is so confident in his storytelling that he introduces at least half a dozen characters who all could be the lead here — and casts them accordingly.

Jason Schwartzman plays a short-tempered Italian mobster. Jessie Buckley is a nurse — the only character in the early going with the kind of accent we associate with Fargo – and a scene-stealer, too. Timothy Olyphant of Justified doesn't show up for a while, but when he does, he's delightful to watch. He's playing a U.S. marshall again – but this time he's a Mormon with a very wry sense of humor. And Crutchfield, playing the teen girl who starts the show, has as much fire and determination as anyone around her.

These actors almost seem to take turns being the stars of this new season of Fargo, and this miniseries, as always, plays with varying tones. There's one scene in the premiere that is so tense it slows time to a crawl — then unexpectedly delivers both laughs and shocks.

Transitions are shown using split screen. Music is used aggressively and inventively as it is in Lovecraft Country. And whenever a bunch of powerful characters are in the same room, the menace is as pervasive as on Justified or The Sopranos. Maybe more so, because this is a stand-alone, one-season installment of Fargo, so any character can die at any time. And even in the first few episodes, many do. Fargo, as in past seasons, manages to be both more dramatic, and more comic, than almost any other show on TV right now.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. "Fargo," the dramatic anthology miniseries on FX, is about to launch its fourth season Sunday. When it premiered in 2014, it promised to present its own take on the oddball spirit and quirky plots and characters of the brilliant 1996 movie by Joel and Ethan Coen. At the time, I didn't think series creator Noah Hawley could pull it off, but he did. That first season of "Fargo" on FX was fabulous, and after that, just as improbably, Hawley reset the table and started all over again - different story, different characters, different setting and, with an all-new season of "Fargo," hit it out of the park a second time. Then, three years ago, "Fargo" showed up with an all-new equally entertaining Season 3. And now it's back. I no longer doubt Noah Hawley's talent. The only thing I doubted as I started to preview this long-awaited Season 4 was whether he could extend his hat trick and emerge with yet another good-as-it-gets TV miniseries. And this season, I'm happy and a bit surprised to report, his "Fargo" streak continues unbroken.

Hawley himself wrote and directed the first two episodes, and they're almost absurdly ambitious. The action takes place far from Fargo, in Kansas City, Mo., and starts by introducing us to a precocious Black teenager named Ethelrida, dealing with racism and sexism in the year 1950. She's giving a classroom oral report on the city's power struggles, which leads to a long, complex flashback about the various gangs who gained and lost power in the 20th century. The Jewish gang, supplanted by the Irish. The Irish, usurped by the Italians. And as "Fargo" works its way back to the present, in 1950 Kansas City, we get the Irish challenged by the Black Gang.

This struggle for equality and respect takes place in a long-ago era of oversized cars and men wearing hats, but the conflicts, and even the language, sizzle with a resonance to very current events. The head of the new gang trying to gain power is played by Chris Rock, who's absolutely terrific here. He's playing a bit older and tougher than you've ever seen him, and he demands respect, even when he has a meeting on a park bench with the Italian mob boss, who listens silently except for the sound of the peanuts he's shelling and eating.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")

CHRIS ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) You're acting I work for you. We've got an alliance. And I know you think part of being an American is standing on my neck. And I see the window signs - no coloreds, no Italians. So we're both in the gutter together, like it or not.

BIANCULLI: Chris Rock's character is not only tough, he's a visionary. In addition to coexisting with and taking power from the Italians, he also has a scheme in which he can invade the white establishment. He goes to a bank in the white part of Kansas City with his trusted lieutenant by his side to pitch a very original idea. That lieutenant, played by Glynn Turman, is named Doctor Senator. His mother named him that to help him command respect. Rock's character, Loy Cannon, tries to get the white bank officer's respect with a unique sales pitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")

ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) We're here because I have an idea.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) An idea?

ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) I'm something of a futurist, which means I don't just see how to make money today; I have a premonition about the wells of tomorrow. At our bank, we extend a lot of credit. But unlike this fine establishment, we don't always ask for commiserate collateral. And what I've learned is that every average Joe wants one thing, and that's to seem rich.

GLYNN TURMAN: (As Doctor Senator) Not to be rich.

ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) To look rich. It's about face.

TURMAN: (As Doctor Senator) Picture it's Saturday night, and you're going out with your best girl.

ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) You promised her lobster, but there's a problem.

TURMAN: (As Doctor Senator) You've only got $2 to your name.

ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) But you're not afraid because you've got this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Is that - what is that?

ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) I call it a credit card.

TURMAN: (As Doctor Senator) Accepted at stores and fine dining establishments around the country.

BIANCULLI: At this point, "Fargo" plays like a showcase for Chris Rock, with the narrative revolving solidly around his character's fortunes. But no. Hawley by now is so confident in his storytelling that he introduces at least half a dozen characters who all could be the lead here and casts them accordingly - Jason Schwartzman as a short-tempered Italian mobster, Jessie Buckley as a nurse, the only character in the early going with the kind of accent we associate with "Fargo." And she's a scene-stealer, too. Timothy Olyphant of "Justified" doesn't show up for a while, but when he does, he's delightful to watch. He's playing a U.S. marshal again, but this time he's a Mormon and has a very wry sense of humor. And the teen girl who starts the show, played by Emyri Crutchfield, has as much fire and determination as anyone around her.

These actors almost seem to take turns being the stars of this new season of "Fargo," and this miniseries, as always, plays with varying tones. There's one scene in the premiere that is so tense, it slows time to a crawl, then unexpectedly delivers both laughs and shocks. Transitions are shown using split screen. Music is used aggressively and inventively as it is in "Lovecraft Country." And whenever a bunch of powerful characters are in the same room, the menace is as pervasive as on "Justified" or "The Sopranos," maybe more so because this is a standalone, one-season installment of "Fargo," so any character can die at any time. And even in the first few episodes, many do.

"Fargo," as in past seasons, manages to be both more dramatic and more comic than almost any other show on TV right now. It's in the rarefied league of "Better Call Saul," which means, basically, it's not to be missed.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAIROS SEXTET'S "TRANSITION")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, how our military leaders think about the unthinkable. Journalist Fred Kaplan says President Trump's threat during his first year as president to reign fire and fury on North Korea made many Americans consider the prospect of nuclear war for the first time in decades. Kaplan's new book explores how our leaders have planned for and sometimes narrowly avoided nuclear conflict. His book is called "The Bomb." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAIROS SEXTET'S "TRANSITION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.