TV Review: ‘Fargo’ Season 3 on FX

FARGO -- Year 3 -- Pictured
Courtesy FX

Fargo” is a pointillist’s dream. In the third season of the anthology series, so many tiny details stand out: There are the perfectly mussed curls of a self-important executive’s hair, which is either inartfully permed or naturally sports a douche-y bounce. The impressive brushiness of the mustache worn by his business partner is almost inspirational; the thick, hairy mass is perfectly suited to sitting over a mouth that often frowns suspiciously and dutifully drags out key vowels. Then there’s the perfectly faded paint job of one character’s vintage Corvette. Not much has to be done to establish the guy’s down-on-his-luck status, not when the formerly glorious, now-tired red of the car’s exterior says so much about the small humiliations and disappointing setbacks that have accrued in his paunchy middle age.

It’s when you expand outward from those grace notes that the show’s grasp on one’s attention begins to shake and wobble.

Sure, it’s a hoot to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead exude rocker-chick attitude as a character named Nikki Swango, a TV name so memorable it’s hard to believe that a hard-boiled detective in the ’70s didn’t already make it iconic. Scoot McNairy, so great as a romantic geek on “Halt and Catch Fire,” has a lot of fun playing a very dumb stoner who is extremely bad at the life of crime he’s chosen. Michael Stuhlbarg, who sports the brushy ’stache mentioned above, is able to make the word “jeez” mean so many different things, which is one of the job requirements for actors in the “Fargo” franchise. These gem-like pleasures are not to be denied.

But there’s a chill in the early installments of the third edition of “Fargo,” a coolness that’s only vaguely related to the windswept and snow-covered Minnesota terrain the show once again traverses.

The second — and, so far, the best — season of the show, supplied a surfeit of actors who could bridge the gap between the show’s distancing, clinical aesthetic and its core dramatic concerns. Though every edition of “Fargo” is chockablock with top talent — and this one is no exception — in the series’ second outing, Ted Danson, Patrick Wilson, Cristin Milioti, and Kirsten Dunst, in particular, lent a warmth and vulnerability to the proceedings. The humane qualities of their characters made it relatively easy to buy into the events that transpired, despite the show’s tendency to prize formal experimentation and arch symbolism over emotional immediacy and the messiness of compassion.

“Fargo” is a show that often holds its characters at arm’s length, but when that rigorous and sometimes off-putting quality is balanced with moments of goofy aspiration, serious connection, or passionate strangeness, the drama coheres into more than the sum of its meticulously created parts. Peggy Blumquist and the second-season UFO storyline were welcome not in spite of their weirdness, but because of their shaggy, inexplicable and irrational qualities. They loosened up a show that sometimes can be a little too calculating and self-conscious for its own good.

In the early going, the third season of “Fargo,” which is set in 2010, offers a sprinkling of skillful characterization, dialogue, and production design without providing enough psychologically compelling components to balance out the largely dry and even perfunctory aspects of the drama. The elements viewers have come to expect are accounted for, as if by checklist: There are middle-class white businessmen in over their heads; lower-class gangsters with and without much in the way of smarts; plainspoken, trustworthy cops who just want to do their jobs; bad guys who speak with elaborate politeness and deploy casual brutality without conscience; themes of change and a corrupting loss of innocence. There’s even a slight whiff of topicality, in the form of financially shady types who seem to have Eastern European connections and use an American businessman as a dupe in their far-reaching schemes. And of course, there’s a poor sap who dies early on, more to set various plots in motion than to serve as an opportunity to reflect on mortality or loss.

Carrie Coon’s character, the quietly dedicated Gloria Burgle, is probably meant to bring the requisite warmth to the new season, and Coon is, of course, wonderfully wry and subtle in the role. She’s a treasure, in both this show and “The Leftovers.” But in the first two episodes of the FX drama, much more screen time is devoted to the season’s party trick: Ewan McGregor plays two brothers who’ve ended up on different rungs of the Midwestern middle-class ladder.

Ray Stussy is a striving parole officer who possesses little aside from his vintage ’Vette and the love of Nikki Swango, a tough, slightly New Age-y bridge player. He’s determined to get her an expensive engagement ring, and neither he nor Nikki is averse to committing crimes in order to realize their modest dreams. (Nikki, who’s served time in prison, hates the word “con” because it’s “so negative.”).

Emmit Stussy is “the parking lot king of Minnesota,” a phrase that comes up a fair bit, and his relationship with his grasping brother is strained at best. The details of each man’s mannerisms, hair, and wardrobe sell the ways in which their lives and tastes diverge, but there’s little about either Stussy brother that’s especially fascinating or, well, different. Widen the scope out from “Fargo,” and it’s not hard to perceive that both Emmit and Ray are common TV types: men whose greed, self-interest and willful delusion put them at the center of ever-greater circles of violence, transgression and misery. We’ve seen these guys before.

Even as one appreciates McGregor’s game and largely successful attempts to master the twangy vowels of the Upper Midwest, around the margins, “Fargo” supplies more interesting types and troublemakers. David Thewlis’ sallow, well-spoken gangster, for instance, is one of the most menacing men to ever wear a sack-like, forgettable bargain suit. And Winstead supplies supple joy and charismatic selfishness as Swango; her swaggering walk into a Midwestern bridge tournament is one of the season’s liveliest moments.

And yet. It’s possible to respect the accomplishment of McGregor’s performance, and “Fargo” as a whole, while also feeling detached from various aspects of what occurs on screen. The show has a tendency to hammer home the fact that stories are contrived, artificial things, and that people are likely to serve their own self-interest, except on those rare occasions when they don’t. These truths are commonplace, but when “Fargo” works, it puts the kind of wry, electric spin on them that makes sticking with these stalwart Midwesterners worthwhile and even exciting. And this season, there are miles to go on that Minnesota prairie. Ah jeez, Emmit and Ray may yet wind up somewhere strange, turbulent, and delightful.

TV Review: 'Fargo' Season 3 on FX

Drama; 10 episodes (2 reviewed); FX, Weds. April 19, 10 p.m. 60 MIN.


Executive producers: Noah Hawley, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Warren Littlefield, John Cameron.


Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Carrie Coon, David Thewlis, Michael Stuhlbarg, Shea Whigham, Olivia Sandoval, Hamish Linklater, Goran Bogdan, Andy Yu, Linda Kash, Graham Verchere, Scoot McNairy

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  1. stephen says:

    Fargo,,,its like a slow moving train,that takes time to get going & Go it does.Acting is great,ive just seen ep7,really hotting up now (have to wait another week now).

  2. Greg Smith says:

    Jeez guys even a lackluster Fargo is better than no Fargo. Nothing compares to the scripting of this show. Nothing. Mad Men made TV fun again now we have Better Call Saul etc. I can’t wait for more Fargo.

  3. Linda rentz says:

    Have always enjoyed Fargo until this year. Actors great script terrible. No interest in characters at all.

  4. john says:

    As with last season (and the movie), accents seem dead on. Lost interest however around e5 as I found it too dark in a meaningless way – even for the Coens and cancelled the remaining recordings, Like all of their productions the cinematography was authentic and beautiful, though.

    • Ross says:

      You stopped recording because it got to dark in a meaningless way. Meaningless like cancelling the recording!! Just weird!

  5. Brad says:

    So the flashback is to 1975 and the writer/ step dad to the women chief. Now it’s 1975 and he looks around 25 years old and the show is based in 2010, right, so that’s a 35 year span, so then how in the world can the dead step dad look like he’s 90 something in 2010?

  6. Bernard says:

    I agree. This season doesn’t seem more than a sum of its parts. It’s jokey and relies on stunt casting that isn’t worth relying on. I’m glad people like McGregor. I think he’s awful here and I cannot look at Ray without thinking, “Oh, here comes Ewan McGregor in a bald wig and facial prosthetics again.” Then Emmit “Oh, here’s McGregor in that perm wig again.”

    The references to Coen movies are probably a delight to fans of Coen movies, but the show should be able to stand alone from the in-jokes in a way where someone who has never seen a Coen movie is satisfied with the plot and characters. None of the characters are interesting. Maybe the relationships between some of the characters will come as a surprise as more information is gleaned, but I don’t care enough about the characters to give a darn, for Pete’s sake.

    I liked season one, but wasn’t overly fond of the violence. Season two was a gem. I rewatched it last week and was once again struck by the depth of characterization and the steady plot leading up to the ending. I cared about those characters. I was curious as to what they were going to do next, even the bad guys. But this season, I don’t find any character interesting and the path to their final destination doesn’t matter.

  7. Denise says:

    I really like Fargo last year. why did they not pick up storyline and then add new actors
    Patrick Wilson and Ted Danson should still be in show! Disappointed … makes no sense

  8. Stanley Rutgers says:

    Dick, you might want to stick to broadcast television. Fargo is clearly over your head.

  9. laxman singh rathore says:

    fargo first season was damn good with nice actors dialogue and atmospheric insight just brilliant bur fargo 3 seems big floundered series no correlation and director fail to stitch together as well screen writer but only brilliant cinematography is not the cup of tea of viewer it proved fail series .my waiting for year seems all in vain.too many cooks and mind spoil the great show

  10. Dick says:

    I watched Billy Bob in Fargo. Was great. Now each season after confuses me and I have no idea why it’s repeated with different people with a different story in the same stupid town.

    This is a horrible experiment in screenwriting that I hope gets cancelled.

  11. darktrain says:

    did you enjoy it though?

  12. Jim Plannette says:

    Beautifully cinematography by Dana Gonzales.

    • mark dreyer says:

      I watched and enjoyed the first two Fargos. But the vile scene in the third hour turned me off. I cancelled the rest of hour three and the rest of the series. The Cohen brothers can do better.

      • stephen says:

        You need to be patient with Fargo,just when your thinking is this slow,,,it changes & Hits you out of the blue !

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