2015’s Top TV: FARGO Season Two

(Image ©FX)

One of the biggest surprises of 2014 was that this seemingly-superfluous series based on a film from two decades ago was actually very, very good.

Under the guidance of showrunner Noah Hawley, the show impressively maintained the best qualities of the Oscar-winning film that shared its name, which had a memorable mixture of shocking violence, quirky mobsters, endearing characters, funny accents, ordinary people ending up in bad situations due to even worse decisions, and a light touch of the absurd and the mythical.

After being hailed with praise, the show returned with increased confidence and it was great fun to watch.

This season went back in time to explore a case Molly Solverson’s dad Lou worked on in 1979. The case was briefly discussed in season one and it sounded pretty horrific.

As the characters get into deeper trouble, costly mistakes are made, the body count begins to rise and Old Lou’s words rattle round our heads, there’s an increasingly strong feeling of inevitable doom, that the characters are unknowingly heading towards a place where Something Terrible is going to happen and any attempts to avoid what’s coming will fail miserably.

The second season of Fargo is a more complicated affair than its predecessor, doubling the amount of main characters, widening its scope, including more political and historical commentary and playfully experimenting with the way it tells its ‘true’ story.

Unlike that other critically-acclaimed miniseries that returned for a second season last year, it manages to juggle many things – more characters, more locations, more intertwining storylines, a new look and tone which is drastically different to the previous season but still keeps what people liked about the show in the first place, and a clear but subtle opinion on the state of the nation at the time – without falling flat on its face and becoming an unlikeable, overwrought mess.

Setting all of this up does make the first three episodes a bit slow, aside from a messy confrontation at a diner that sets the events of the season into motion. They lay the groundwork for even messier outbreaks of violence later on with plenty of exceptionally well-written conversations and typically-quirky character moments.

Then the pace builds, the stakes rise and the tension often becomes unbearable as the season races towards a grisly climax in Sioux Falls. The final episode is a long exhalation of breath, a calm epilogue which wraps up loose ends, mops up the blood and examines how the survivors are coping with what they’ve experienced.

The show has an exceptional cast and even the minor characters get a memorable scene in their limited screen time. Kirsten Dunst is especially good as highly-strung hairdresser Peggy Blomquist. She and her dopey, long-suffering husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) get caught in the middle of a confrontation between the mob and a local crime family that could escalate into all-out war.

To show this conflict, the season tries out new televisual tricks in the same gleeful manner of a child that just got a lot of new toys for Christmas, jumping into black and white, messing with the aspect ratio, changing the framing device of the narrative for an episode, inserting flashbacks without warning, doing a few inventive montages, adding in a freeze-frame or two and using a lot of split-screen.

But every visual flourish has clearly been carefully thought out and it rarely feels indulgent. It’s oddly exciting. You never really know quite what sort of rabbit the show’s gonna pull out of its hat next, since it delights in subverting expectations and trying new things, and this applies to the storytelling as well as the show’s beautiful visual style.

It’s also complemented by an eclectic soundtrack of period-appropriate ’70s music and new versions of songs from other Coen brothers films.

Though it would be best to watch the show in order, and even watch the film, if you have time,  before the show, it’s not at all necessary. Many of the references to the film in season one and references to season one in season two won’t affect your enjoyment of the show and most of them are fairly minor.

Well, apart from one scene at the end of the most recent season where the writers bend over backwards to nonsensically link the fate of one character to another from season one, which was a rare mis-step for the show. But don’t let that put you off.

Since Hannibal has sadly had its last meal and that other miniseries that was on my 2014 Best Of list has nosedived in quality, Fargo has become my favourite show on TV… and it’s taking a year off. Sigh. At least it gives you lot plenty of time to catch up!

Yes, sadly, season three won’t be on our screens until 2017. But will it be worth the wait?

Oh, you betcha.

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