The first season of FX’s ‘Fargo’ spin-off was originally supposed to be a limited-run series. When the show proved popular and the network asked for another season, creator Noah Hawley wasn’t sure he even wanted to do one. After weighing his options for how to tackle such a project, he finally settled on making it a prequel. So far, that seems to have been a very clever decision.
It’s a running joke of both the original Coen brothers’ movie and the TV show that ‘Fargo’ doesn’t take place in Fargo, North Dakota at all. The new season continues to be set in small town Minnesota. The year, however, is now 1979, at the tail end of the Carter administration. Patrick Wilson stars as police officer Lou Solverson. Fans of Season 1 will remember that Keith Carradine played an older, retired version of the character, who was the father of heroine Molly Solverson. (Young Molly is seen briefly in the season premiere when her father reads her a bedtime story.) Although a minor supporting player there, Lou mentioned several times about having experienced dark and troubling things in his past.
This, apparently, will be that story. It’s a clever hook that ties the seasons of the show together while sidestepping the most typical problem that befalls prequels – the audience already knowing how the story must inevitably end. Obviously, Lou himself will live to be an old man, but pretty much anything else is an open mystery.
Most of the premiere episode’s running time is spent establishing the new characters and setting up the new storylines. This particular chunk of Minnesota is run by the Gerhardt crime family. When tough-as-nails patriarch Otto Gerhardt (Michael Hogan from ‘Battlestar Galactica’) is sidelined by a stroke, his family must pick up the pieces. These include his battle-axe wife Floyd (Jean Smart) and their three sons of declining intelligence: Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), Bear (Angus Sampson) and Rye (Kieran Culkin).
Rye in particular is a classic Coen-style halfwit. Under pressure to “earn” more (i.e. collect on the family’s racketeering debts), he buys into a business scheme to sell electric typewriters (“the way of the future,” he’s assured). Before that can happen, he needs to pressure a crotchety judge (Ann Cusack) to release the hold on his partner’s finances. His incompetent bungling at this task leads to a shoot-out at a lonely Waffle Hut restaurant that leaves three dead, including the judge, and a knife wound in his back. As he stumbles out into the snow, Rye is hit by a car, which drives away with him still clinging to the windshield. Later that night, Solverson is called out to investigate the case.
Other major players this season include Ted Danson as Lou’s father-in-law (who’s also a cop), Nick Offerman as a nutty conspiracy theorist, and Brad Garrett as a mobster from a rival organization looking to push into Gerhardt territory. Kirsten Dunst plays Peggy Blomquist, the bubble-headed housewife who hit Rye with her car. Suffering some sort of cognitive break, Peggy simply drives home and leaves him in the garage, where her good-hearted husband Ed (Jesse Plemons from ‘Friday Night Lights’) discovers him and is forced to kill Rye in self-defense. Peggy begs her husband not to call the police, fearing that they’ll both be arrested for murder. They toss his body in a deep-freeze until they can figure out what to do with him.
As you’d expect, the premiere episode is very darkly comic. If anything, the humor is laid on a little too thick. An opening prologue spoof of an old black-and-white Western starring Ronald Reagan (this will be important in future episodes) goes on too long, and scene after scene revel in parodying the local accents and so-called “Minnesota Nice.” A montage of characters mindlessly repeating the phrase “Okay then” feels more like cruel, derisive mockery than affectionately poking fun.
I have no idea what to make of a scene in which Rye spots a UFO – other than as a non-sequitur reference to the UFO mania of the time period and a similar scene in the Coens’ ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’. I should hope this isn’t a sign that aliens will come to town.
Regardless, there’s a lot of potential here. The Solverson character is already very endearing, and the Waffle Hut sequence feels like a classic Coen set-piece. The show’s first season was a slow-burn that took a while to fully reveal its genius and I expect much the same this time. ‘Fargo’ is the TV series I’ve been most excited to see return this fall, and it seems to be off to a good start.