This review contains spoilers
2.1 Waiting for Dutch
It has sometimes been thought that the American television economy was an especially brutal corner of the entertainment landscape. TV shows that were considered to be underperforming, occasionally critically but more often commercially, would be summarily cancelled; their sets broken up, their casts dispersed, their stories unfinished. Although some programmes have been resurrected, either on the same channel (Family Guy) or elsewhere (Arrested Development, Twin Peaks), for most of them, the decision of the executive is as final as that of the hanging judge.
TV is by no means unique as an example of a business that is prepared to swing the axe when necessary, but it does come in for particularly heavy criticism for doing so, particularly in cases where a show is cancelled before it has had time to run an entire season (or, in extreme cases, a second episode). Much of this is to do with the nature of the product. Whereas films, by and large, are designed to be self-contained, TV shows are written to endure. They also take some time to develop and establish themselves, to build their dramatic environments and perfect their style. Many extinct TV shows, runs this logic, could have been wonderful, were they simply given enough time.
The argument has been bolstered by several recent examples that improved with each passing year. The first season of Breaking Bad lacks some of the sure-footedness that became its hallmark in later seasons while shows such as The Americans and Hannibal grew in confidence once their premises were firmly established. On the strength of the second season opener, Fargo seems likely to pull the same trick. Despite arriving as the child of a well-regarded film with a distinctive style, the first season had to do an awful lot of work to establish its customary quirks in a way that sustained across ten hours. The startling fusion of folksy comfort and brutal, bloody violence, the jet black comedy and the peculiar rhythms of its Minnesota accented dialogue all took a little bit of getting used to, despite the considerable verve with which they were presented.
That work having been done, and done well, the show begins its sophomore outing with an earned swagger. It’s a useful attribute, helping to carry the action back thirty-odd years to 1979 and the younger days of Lou Solverson, here still working as a State Trooper and living a warm (albeit darkly threatened) domestic life with his wife Betsy and their daughter, last season’s protagonist Molly, as a young girl. There are several other returning elements, beyond the use of younger versions of last year’s characters; the quiet but capable Lou is clearly his daughter’s father, the accidental killers in the Blomquist household carry some echoes of Lester Nygaard and the powerful but unfortunate Gerhardt family may remind some of the godforsaken Stavros Milos. Recurrent patterns are not a bad thing, especially not when they are delivered with such élan. Indeed, they serve to underline the superiority of this season (as things stand) over its predecessor.
A lot of this is to do with style. The quirkiness is swiftly reestablished with the grainy monochrome of the old MGM logo and the offbeat comedy of the Massacre At Sioux Falls film set. However, it is with the arrival of the 1970s backdrop (with some helpful guidance from Jimmy Carter) that things really click into place. The tight tan leather jackets, wispy facial hair and beautifully hideous knitwear are perfect clothing for the folksy awkwardness that accompanies so many of the characters. It runs deeper than wardrobe – Jesse Plemons’ added chunkiness complements his schlubby character and makes the contrast between the daft Ed and the attractive and manipulative Peggy all the more striking.
The 1970s style extends to the smart use of split-screen, deployed to establish the environment and in the service of knowing humour, when we see Peggy Blomquist ‘panicking’ on her return home with a grievously wounded Rye Gerhardt as an unwitting hood ornament. It also lends itself to some heartbreaking directing choices, such as when we see the Solverson family divided by an internal wall, Lou and Molly on one side, the doomed Besty on another. Here we see Fargo at its most Fargoesque, using a device for comic purposes before reflecting it on a moment of heartfelt drama. It is incredibly hard to get this sort of thing right. Fargo gets it perfect.
There is, as there was before, great joy and richness in the dialogue too. Nick Offerman’s too-good-to-be-a-cameo conspiracy theorist Karl Weathers offered a peppery summary of the way he sees the world really working before converting his suspicions to offer his friend Lou some words of comfort without changing his topic. Reassuring too, was the familial conversation between Lou and Sheriff Hank Larsson (a grandfatherly Ted Danson), a moment that played entirely naturally even as it advanced our knowledge of the town, its inhabitants and the people with whom were are most concerned. This is effective, clever writing that doesn’t forget to entertain as it creates its world.
The framework for the season was established with similar efficiency. Otto Gerhardt’s position as the unwavering patriarch of the town’s leading crime family was made clear within a few seconds of Michael Hogan’s first appearance, making the impact of his loss to a stroke all that more keenly felt. The sudden absence of a quite probably stabilising influence promises bloody chaos in the weeks to come while the farcical mishaps at the Blomquist house suggest that it’s not just the professional criminals who have a lot to deal with.
A welcome return then, for one of the most surprising TV successes of recent years and a show that mixes style and substance well enough to survive a time shift while managing to preserve the essential qualities that made it such a joy last year and, if anything, improves on them. How nice too, to see another show reward our faith in it from one year to the next.
Read Michael’s review of the season one finale, Morton’s Fork, here.
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