‘Fargo’ Showrunner Noah Hawley on Season 2 and Thinking Like a Coen Brother

Fargo renewed Season 3
Gregg Segal for Variety

When Noah Hawley’s Emmy-winning FX limited series “Fargo” returns for a second season in October, nearly everything fans fell in love with in season one will be gone.

Say goodbye to Billy Bob Thornton’s malevolent Malvo, Martin Freeman’s bumbling Lester — even the snow-capped landscapes have melted away (it wasn’t planned, but weather conditions in the show’s Calgary locations were more moderate the second time around).

The revamp is one of the boldest experiments yet in the fast-growing anthology series genre pioneered by “American Horror Story” — and most recently bungled by HBO’s “True Detective.”

Or as Hawley jokingly calls it, his second “dumb idea.”

“The first dumb idea was to do it at all — to take ‘Fargo,’ this beloved classic, and turn it into a television show,” he says in a conference room on the Fox lot in early August, where he’s working on a final cut of the season finale. “The second dumb idea, when you do it and it works, was to throw everything out and start again.”

The pressure, as they say, is on.

And yet this was always Hawley’s plan. Partly because he couldn’t imagine a show in which wholesome Midwesterners find themselves in outrageous situations season after season (“eventually you’re watching ‘Picket Fences,’” he cracks), and partly because “Fargo” springs from the DNA of idiosyncratic auteurs the Coen brothers. Storylines, characters and locations may change, but Hawley says every “Fargo” season begins with the question: “What would the Coens do?”

“Joel and Ethan never made the same movie twice,” says Hawley of the siblings, who receive executive producer credit on the FX series despite their lack of direct involvement.

Besides, Hawley has a history of coming up with fresh ideas. His first two series — police procedural “The Unusuals” and faux-documentary “My Generation” — were both axed by ABC after single seasons. “They trained me to pour everything I have into a year of television, and then go off and do something totally different,” he says. “The anthology format is completely normal to me. That’s just how TV works in my experience.”

Even if anthologies are trending, it’s still jarring for a network to take a show that won three Emmys (including best miniseries), two Golden Globes and a Peabody and say, “Let’s do it again, except change everything.”

FX president John Landgraf understands the potential pitfalls. “You risk taking this incredible win that you had, and turning it into an embarrassing failure,” he says. The deciding factor was Hawley’s pitch, and putting faith in a showrunner who underwent the Hollywood version of trial by fire. “My biggest concern in making ‘Fargo’ the first time was the bar that had been set by the movie. On some level, it almost seemed like a suicide mission. I have a lot of confidence in Noah now from having done that.”

There was a contingency plan in place — co-stars Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks had deals with options to return for a second season — but Hawley pitched “Fargo” 2.0 as a prequel. The narrative travels back to 1979 when Tolman’s Molly was just a preteen, and transforms her father, Lou (played by Keith Carradine last year and Patrick Wilson this year), into the series’ leading man.

The byzantine narrative set in and around Minnesota and South Dakota interweaves seemingly disparate threads, including new characters played by Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Jean Smart, as well as presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and UFOs.

On that last topic, Hawley is close-lipped about whether or not the season takes a sincere turn toward sci-fi, but he cites the UFO subplot in the Coens’ 2001 noir “The Man Who Wasn’t There” as tacit “permission” to explore the topic. He also repeats one of his favorite quotes from the Coen canon: “Accept the mystery.”

“I was able to do a lot of things under the auspices of making a Coen brothers movie,” Hawley says with a trace of mischief. “It liberates you to do things that other people aren’t even trying.”

But Hawley is the first to admit that attempting to channel the inimitable Coens’ tone without seeming like a crude imitator is about as easy as trying to make it as a folk singer in early-’60s New York without comparisons to Dylan.

As in the first season, the new storyline offers up a mix of nerve-wracking suspense soaked in blood and dread with generous dollops of wry, often dark, humor.

Meanwhile, the visual style — an ode to ’70s cinema complete with split screens, freeze frames and an overall grittier aesthetic — was born in the editing room. “It takes time to find it, the identity,” Hawley says. “We discovered that cinematic language that was not part of the scripted conception.”

It’s a language that pre-dates the Coens’ films, inasmuch as Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” and Boorman’s “Point Blank” were just as influential this season. “It might not feel exactly like the first year,” Hawley says. “But the test for me is when the credits are rolling at the end of hour 10, do you have that same feeling?”

Another thing that changed in season two: the sprawling narrative — which Hawley admits is “a much bigger story with a lot more moving pieces” than season one — was continually massaged and rejiggered, right up until the last minute.

“The great thing about making an ensemble show is it becomes modular,” Hawley says. “It might work on the page to cut from one scene to another, but on the screen, it’s more powerful to take that second scene and move it first or move it later.”

Case in point: To build suspense for a key storyline in the premiere, Dunst and Plemons’ characters first appear much later than scripted, while the introduction of Smart’s extended clan of criminals was moved up from a later episode to better emphasize their importance, requiring a few extra scenes to be shot deep into production.

“It’s a relentlessly challenging process,” Landgraf says. “I’ve watched every cut of every one of these episodes usually three or four times because there’s so much adjustment and experimentation going on. If it feels simple and seamless on some level to the audience, that’s really the triumph of what Noah’s achieved. The layering of work it takes to get there is pretty remarkable.”

Even the actors were surprised when they saw the first episode at the season wrap party.

“It was obviously great on the page, and (Noah) hired all these actors who were excited to be there, so it was like all the right ingredients,” Danson says. “But then in the editing room, he just upped the game.”

Last season, Hawley worked with four other writers to arc out the season, and then wrote each script himself. In order to move faster in season two, he shared the scripting load with his team.

Landgraf calls Hawley “stubborn about the things he cares deeply about, but always willing to engage with criticism.”

Hawley says he’s conscious of how his ideas play for other people. “I’m not that guy who thinks I have all the answers. Writing is a means of communicating, and if enough people say, ‘I don’t get it,’ it’s worth looking at.” But, he adds, “At the end of the day, it goes out the way I want it to go out.”

While it’s still far too soon to bestow critical acclaim on “Fargo’s” new direction, reviews that trickled out after a screening of the first episode have been uniformly positive, unlike the gumblings that greeted the reboot of “True Detective.” Asked to address the rivalry between the two shows, Landgraf was diplomatic.

“Even if we get to the end of (the season) and people have a more favorable view of ‘Fargo’ than they do of ‘True Detective,’ (HBO is) gonna make a third cycle of ‘True Detective’ and we’re gonna make a third cycle of ‘Fargo,’ ” he says. “The next time we come back, the shoe could easily be on the other foot. Ultimately, I applaud the risk.”

Hawley supports more networks embracing the anthology model — from ABC’s “American Crime” to Starz’s “The Missing.” “I feel like on a storytelling level, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg for what you can do,” he says. “What’s going to dictate whether it succeeds or fails is financial — is it a good business model?”

He points to the surge of streaming outlets looking for binge-able content and networks doubling as studios for their own projects to support his verdict. “The idea that you can make 10 hours of something and sell it all around the world really starts to make sense,” he says.

Danson, who has seen TV evolve from his days on “Cheers” to a point where he can segue directly from the final season of CBS procedural “CSI” to the second installment of an FX anthology, views the small screen’s gain as the big screen’s loss.

Noting the Hollywood majors’ infatuation with blockbuster franchises, he believes the best writers are finding that TV has become the auteur’s playground. “Those writers who are brilliant are pouring into television in a medium that gives them 10 hours to tell their story,” Danson says. “That’s better than a feature.”

Of course, one byproduct of telling a successful story is that the network will inevitably want more. “Now we’ve done it twice, you start to go, ‘How many of these are we gonna do?’” Hawley says, adding that FX understands the heavy lifting involved in rebooting a show every season, from generating ideas to signing new actors. “What I appreciate is that there isn’t that gun to our heads of ‘Do it again right away.’ ”