Things get bloody — again — on FX's 'Fargo'

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

"Fargo," perhaps the first television series to take not its premise and characters but rather the look, sound and approach to storytelling from the movie whose name it shares, starts a second season Monday on FX.

Set, like the 1996 Coen brothers film, among the towns and cities of the Plains where Minnesota bumps into the Dakotas (it's filmed even farther north, in Alberta, Canada), the TV series presents bloody happenstance as black comedy and finds pockets of warmth in the unending cold. You would never know from any "Fargo" that it was ever close to warm in these parts, but snow is, after all, a helpmate to drama: It slows movement, brings quiet, sets off the sanguinary red.

Given that its two seasons are linked — the new year is a prequel — "Fargo" isn't an anthology in the sense of "American Horror Story" or "True Detective," though, like those shows, it changes its cast from season to season while maintaining its aesthetic and, I guess you could call it, mission. As before, there are good cops, talkative killers and ordinary folks who find themselves over their heads in trouble and getting in deeper with every step they take to get out.

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Like the film and the series' first season, which was set in 2006, the present "Fargo" is represented as being a "true story" — all episodes open with the same "Dragnet" joke that the names have been changed at the request of the survivors but that the details are exact out of respect for the dead. But even were this the case, it's beside the point. And it is clearly not the case.

Now we are back in 1979, when Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson here, Keith Carradine in Season 1), then a state trooper, was involved in an incident his older self will recall as something "I ain't ever seen before or ever since — I'd call it animal except animals only kill for food." The shadow of war hangs over several characters; Richard Nixon is referenced with odd frequency; changing roles for women drive more than one story.

One strand concerns the Gerhardts, a local crime family in flux. Mother Floyd (Jean Smart) and her sons in three flavors (Jeffrey Donovan, Angus Sampson, Kieran Culkin) have their territory threatened by "another outfit" from Kansas City, and if that has the tang of a film western, you could shift this story back 100 years without much alteration. Another story follows butcher's assistant Ed (Jesse Plemons) and his restless beautician wife, Peggy (Kirsten Dunst), the season's appointed bad decision makers.

The season begins strangely, with what look to be outtakes from an MGM western called "Massacre at Sioux Falls," in which we watch an assistant director and an actor dressed as an Indian wait for the props department to finish sticking arrows in an off-camera Ronald Reagan. (Reagan, who will be elected president the next year, will enter the series itself in the person of Bruce Campbell — which is to say, the season will continue strangely.)

There is also a kind of "Close Encounters" encounter early on, echoed in a later scene set against the screening of an old (again, invented) sci-fi film, also starring Reagan, and more obliquely by Richard Burton reading the opening lines of "The War of the Worlds" on the soundtrack. I don't know what it means.

The camera work (Dana Gonzales and Craig Wrobleski split the episodes) nods toward the era's movies in terms of palette and focus, and it also recalls the art photography of the time. It doesn't prettify the setting so much as make it palpable. You can almost feel the air. There are old-timey zooms and dissolves and not exactly period split-screen effects, which at first feel overly, overtly referential but eventually become the language of the series.

Whatever feels discordant is eventually lost in the grace of the performances (which this year include Nick Offerman's conspiracy-theorist town lawyer, Cristin Milioti as Lou's self-possessed ailing wife, Brad Garrett as a criminal corporate raider and Bokeem Woodbine as his philosophical enforcer), the elegance of the production and the liberally distributed suspense. Like most of the Coen brothers' films, it is half a twist removed from nature, film-obsessed and exaggerated at times to the point of grotesquerie, but it is also warmhearted at its core.

As is common enough nowadays, the bad guys come in better and worse flavors. Some are only accidentally bad — victims of fate, not its agents. What distinguishes "Fargo" from most other contemporary cable crime series — and much of the modern literature of heroes and villains — is that its good guys are so fundamentally good. That isn't to say they're uncomplicated, but they are not compromised either. If they're haunted, it's by what they've seen, not by what they've done, and they carry on with grace. You know whom to root for.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Fargo'

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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