Can Season 2 of 'Fargo' Live Up to Its Own Standard of Excellence?

Our TV critic says that if the writing and attention to detail are as good as season one, the answer is 'you betcha.'

Michael Handelzalts
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Kirsten Dunst in the second season of ‘'Fargo,' which set a standard of excellence in its first season.Credit: Courtesy of HOT
Michael Handelzalts

I keep seeing the same couple of frames while channel-hopping on HOT: Two police cruisers are seen from above on a snow-white plain, parked alongside each other in the middle of nowhere. There is no road, only their tire tracks on each side, with each vehicle facing opposite directions. When the camera pans down and reaches the level of the drivers’ front windows, we see two characters in uniform – a local cop and a sheriff with a wide-brimmed hat – exchanging a silent glance. Both drive away, leaving an empty white frame.

It feels familiar. Nothing dramatic has happened, yet there’s a vague sense of imminent danger. The emptiness of the frame, bar the stationary cars and their tracks in the snow, sets the tone for something incongruous, nearly funny but not quiet. It looks like ... ah, yes, like “Fargo” – both the 1996 Coen brothers movie (with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy) and its TV-series remake, created and written by Noah Hawley, and starring Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman. It was undoubtedly the brightest star in American TV’s firmament last year.

Like HBO’s “True Detective,” an auteur show conceived and written by Nic Pizzolatto, Hawley’s FX-produced “Fargo” set a standard of excellence in its first season, sort of tripping itself up on the way to the second season – one in which both series needed to reinvent themselves. In its first season, “True Detective” looked like it managed to “reinvigorate” the somewhat stale police procedural formula by elevating it almost to the level of “art” (some critics even claimed it be the new, 21st-century incarnation of literature). It fared less well in its second season, garnering passable grades – but no more – in a different setting and with a different cast.

“Fargo” was a resounding success in its first season. It triumphed not only in its own right as hugely enjoyable viewing – intricate, thought-provoking and even touching, but entertaining as we expect our TV shows to be – but also as a series that carved its own “niche,” earning the right to be discussed, dissected and debated as an item in its own right, without comparison to the original movie.

So, when a second season was commissioned by FX and Hawley went back to the writing and drawing board, the bar was set considerably higher than for the first season: “Fargo” 2 is expected to be both a rightful heir to the Coens’ movie (they are executive producers here but aren’t creatively involved) and the original season – to be like it and yet different; familiar and yet original.

Finally, after a long wait and following a stream of teasers about actors being signed up for the second season – all of them having big shoes to fill, as Thornton, Freeman and Co. left an impression not unlike the one Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey did in “True Detective” 1 – the second season of “Fargo” is here: on HOT Plus at 10 P.M. from October 15, a mere three days after its U.S. premiere.

Change of time, not scene

Unlike “True Detective,” which moved its traveling circus from the swamps of Louisiana Gothic to a California Noir setting, “Fargo” stays firmly in the vicinity of the real Fargo, taking place between Luverne, Minnesota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. One thing that does move, though, is the timeline: the plot of the movie was set in 1986; the plot of the first season unfolded in 2006 (they all are purportedly based on true stories, but are fictional). Season two of “Fargo” moves farther back in time to winter 1979, becoming, in effect, a prequel to the first season, as well as an American period piece.

Female policewoman Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), who braved the elements and criminals in season one, was one of the key links connecting the series to the movie, in which McDormand’s law enforcement officer was in the advanced stages of pregnancy. The second season’s link to the first is state police officer Lou Solverson, Molly’s father (played in the first season by Keith Carradine; this time, his younger self is portrayed by Patrick Wilson). He’s a Vietnam Vet and no-nonsense officer who finds a dead body in a deserted diner (Solverson Sr. runs a diner in “Fargo” 1). When he follows the bloody footprints, he stumbles upon a warpath between local Mob family the Gerhardts – headed by Floyd (Jean Smart), a crime mama who rules over her wayward sons with an iron hand and poker face – and the Kansas City Mafia. A Mob subplot also peppered the second season of “True Detective.”

The post-Vietnam aura rests heavily on the show, with its air of disillusionment. The other undercurrent is the memory of the Watergate scandal: Right after they find the dead John Doe, Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson, fresh out of “CSI,” but with a beard this time) shares with Solverson his feeling that small things, like one dead body, are bound to lead to a huge scandal – like the seemingly minor, at first glance, break-in at the Watergate office complex in 1972 that developed into a huge scandal of corruption in the highest of places. The change in the country’s mood is in the air as Republican candidate Ronald Reagan passes through Sioux Falls, and Solverson is assigned to protect him (Bruce “The Evil Dead” Campbell plays the soon-to-be-elected president).

The lineup is pretty star-studded, and the brightest is Kirsten Dunst, starring in a TV series for the first time as an innocent bystander caught in the cross fire of power beyond her control. She plays Peggy Blomquist, who runs a small beauty parlor and is just trying to get on with her life with husband Ed (Jesse Plemons), the local butcher. In a press conference, some of the stars (Wilson, Danson and Dunst) admitted that, while being fans of the movie, they hadn’t watched the first season until they had committed to appear in the second.

So, the stage is set, the stakes are high and all that remains is to sit back, relax and savor it. Based on season one, it all depends on the writing (you can count on some glib quotes) and a myriad of details (remember the blue poster with the school of yellow fish and a single red fish in season one?), which will tell a story of many misguided humans who steer us through the murky waters of everyday life and its crimes in the wintry north of Minnesota, with a healthy dose of grim humor. You go, “Fargo.”