Public Service Announcement 18 of 2017: Fargo, The Handmaid’s Tale

Erstwhile on Fargo: we had season 1, which I thought to have “everything you could look for in a TV drama”. But that didn’t quite prepare me for season 2. When I reviewed the first episode I described it as “reach(ing) a kind of rapturous perfection”. The amazing thing is that it actually got better and better from there. After about four or five episodes I remember, almost in a state of stupefaction, wondering whether there was any limit to what this show could do, and convinced that I was watching something which wasn’t merely excellent, but which would go down as something of a landmark. In short, I can’t quite believe that there’s any room for improvement. Anyway, season 3 is set in 2010, stars Ewan McGregor (as twins!), Caroline Coon, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and appears to have the same delicious mixture of low-life crime and family deception. My only concern is that Fargo auteur Noah Hawley might be starting to spread himself a little too thin, as auteurs are wont to do (Wednesday 31 May, 10pm, Channel 4).

Interestingly, the other heavyweight reaching our screens this week is also on Channel 4’s terrestrial channel, suggesting that it is once more trying to establish itself as a home for prestige drama. It’s Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale which, if the reviews from America are to be believed, is the latest don’t-miss drama to come rolling off the Golden Age’s assembly line. The ridiculously talented Elisabeth Moss leads a cast which includes Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bledel, Joseph Fiennes, and Samira Wiley. (Moss is also a producer.) It may be, of course, that a show about the subjugation of women set in a dystopian near-future will have some resonance in a time when the American President can boast about sexual assault, and some extremist theocracies seem intent on returning females to the Dark Ages. We shall see (tonight, 9pm, Channel 4).

Also starting: season 5 of Netflix’s House Of Cards (Tuesday 30 May); and some nonsense about the Kennedys, on Channel 5 tomorrow at 9pm, in which the part of Ted is played by Chandler Bing (“Could I have been more drunk when I drove off that bridge?”).

Fargo s2 ep 1

In best universe-of-Coen style the first scene of Fargo’s second season – following a context-setting 1979 montage – is an apparent feint, but which might not be: it’s a beautifully constructed pastiche of an imaginary black-and-white Ronald Reagan movie. Ronnie himself, still being given fake wounds, doesn’t appear on screen, and a crew member and an actor playing a Native American bicker more or less amiably. By 1979, of course, Reagan was on the campaign trail, about to fulfil a desire which the USA didn’t even know it had. It’s all reflected in the episode title: Waiting for Dutch.

While America’s waiting, though, the paterfamilias of the Gerhardts, a South Dakotan crime family, has a stroke, leaving a leadership vacuum to be filled by one of his three sons. (Or, perhaps, by his wife, who will later be dismissed as “a girl” by a rival syndicate.) But just as you’re thinking “didn’t Empire already bring King Lear into the age of peak TV?” the storyline spins smartly in another direction: youngest son Rye, keen to prove himself, tries to threaten a local judge at a waffle house, which ends with everyone there being killed, and with Rye himself being struck by a car on leaving.

The murders are investigated by State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and his father-in-law Sheriff Larsson (Ted Danson). But Rye isn’t at the waffle house: what they don’t know is that the driver who hit him, Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), panicked, somehow managed to heave him into her car and thereafter into her basement, not knowing whether he’s alive or dead. Peggy’s husband Ed (Jesse Plemons), trying to sell his wife on his dream of owning a butcher’s shop and having “a litter of kids”, hears mysterious thumps and groans in his house; on investigating, he’s attacked by Rye, who he kills in self-defence. Ed and Peggy decide to keep it a secret, and throw the body into their chest freezer.

So an apparently inexplicable mass killing; a deceptively intuitive investigator; a couple of straight-arrows caught up in homicide; and a body which needs disposed of. It’s all very Fargo. But, as with the first season, it’s quite beautifully done: the filming is extraordinary (the blood running into a white milkshake in the Waffle House, for example); the acting is flawless throughout, and the script is witty and clever, but with a heart.

The episode reaches a kind of rapturous perfection in two of its final scenes. There’s an unshowy but moving one, in which Lou channels Walter Winchell when saying goodnight to his cancer-stricken wife, “and all the ships at sea”. And there’s a surreally brilliant one, in which a mid-ranking gangster offers his boss a slide-show, made to look like the late-70s equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation, outlining the proposed Kansas City Northern Expansion Strategy, with information provided by the “boys in research”. The strategy, of course, is to take advantage of the Gerhardts’ misfortune to take over their business.

All in all it’s a fantastic episode, and the show has yet more in reserve: Jeffrey Donovan has hardly featured. Nick Offerman, as local conspiracy nut Karl Weathers, got – and stole – a scene, but no more. And – apart from on a poster – we’ve still to see Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan, a casting idea so goofily perfect that, on one level, I’d actually be quite pleased if we only ever got to imagine it. I thought the first season of Fargo was the best new show of 2014. On this sort of form it might well be, without qualification, the best show of 2015.

Public Service Announcement 52 of 2015: Fargo, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory

I thought Fargo was the best new show of 2014: cleverly plotted, witty, beautifully shot, a fantastic cast, and the wonderful Allison Tolman as the beating heart of the whole thing. So I’m delighted that it’s back for a second season, even with the action shifted to 1979, and an entirely new cast. What a cast, though: Patrick Wilson (as Lou Solverson, played by Keith Carradine in season 1), Ted Danson, Jean Smart, Kirsten Dunst, Nick Offerman (RON FUCKING SWANSON, folks), Jeffrey Donovan and Bruce Campbell from Burn Notice, Jesse Plemons from Friday Night Lights, Cristin Miloti from HIMYM, and Adam Arkin from everything. The newly-fashionable anthology structure doesn’t guarantee success by any means – step forward, True Detective – but the advance reviews from America could scarcely have been more enthusiastic. And we’re only a week behind. Truly, the TV Gods are being good to us (tonight, 10pm, Channel 4).

The two biggest comedies in America also start their latest seasons in the UK this week, and since nothing attracts TV haters like successful comedy, you’ll find no shortage of people telling you that Modern Family (tonight, 8.30pm, Sky 1), and The Big Bang Theory (Thursday, 8.30pm, E4) aren’t and have never been funny. Except, of course, they are and always have been. There’s room for debate about whether they’ve already peaked, mind you: I thought the last season of Modern Family was about as good as the one before, which is to say a little better than the one before that, but not as good as the ones before that. It remained Ty Burrell’s show in season 6, although the emergence of Sarah Hyland as a genuine comic talent is becoming more and more apparent. Meantime the money-making machine that is Big Bang rumbles on. The female side of the cast – often the more reliable – is further strengthened this season with the permanent addition of Laura Spencer, and those (i.e. me) who like to watch for this sort of thing will be reassured to know that the newly-single Kaley Cuoco definitely isn’t hooking up again with Johnny Galecki.

Also starting: season 3 of Sleepy Hollow (Thursday, 9pm, Universal); season 11 of Criminal Minds (tonight, 9pm, Sky Living); season 5 of American Horror Story, with added Gaga (Tuesday, 10pm, FOX UK); and the latest attempt to revive The Muppets, which has had mixed reviews (tonight, 8pm, Sky 1).

Fargo s1 ep 10

Continuing my season-end reviews of shows we didn’t have time to do on a week-by-week basis, Fargo finished its run with an episode which dealt with Lester Nygaard’s Poundstretcher Walter White, the Mephistophelean Lorne Malvo, and tied up enough of the loose ends to be satisfying. It probably wasn’t quite the best episode, but it was a fitting end to a season which, not surprisingly, has earned Emmy nominations all over the place. As we noted earlier, the vagaries of the Emmy process allowed True Detective (eight episodes) to submit itself in the Best Drama category, while Fargo (ten episodes) put itself forward as a miniseries.

And I’d like to think it’ll win one or two. Fargo had pretty much everything you could look for in a TV drama: it was elegantly and meticulously plotted, and modestly adventurous in its storytelling, in particular in episodes 8 and 9. On top of that, it had a spectacular bodycount, a Conspiracy Wall or two, a ship to die for, and some genuine visual flair: Malvo’s single-handed assault on the mob HQ, for example. And on top of that it had a top-notch cast, with wonderful performances from Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, and Colin Hanks, all of whom are Emmy-nominated; and Bob Odenkirk, Keith Carradine, Adam Goldberg, Oliver Platt, Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele providing the show with a deep bench.

But the first among equals in the cast, of course – of course – was Allison Tolman as Deputy Molly Solverson, radiating dogged intelligence, warmth, and uncomplicated decency, which is probably no easier to portray than the complicated kind. It was a remarkable performance, which has already earned her a Critics’ Choice award to go with her own Emmy nomination. One trusts that we’ll be seeing a great deal more of Tolman, although it won’t be in season 2 of Fargo: the show has been renewed, but showrunner Noah Hawley has indicated that it will be set in 1979, and will be set at least in part in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, picking up on an allusion made by Molly’s father Lou.

So I feel as if we kind of sold Fargo a little bit short; we covered the first two episodes, then due to pressure of time we left it there. As it happens, though, it’s probably my favourite new show of the year so far. I thought it was wonderful.

Fargo s1 ep 2

In my review of the excellent first episode I worried about how Fargo would move forward. Well, Molly Solverson (the excellent Allison Tolman) is moving front and centre, as she pursues Lester Nygaard in relation to the deaths; she’s got intelligence and dogged decency down pat, and she has Keith Carradine, playing her father, as a sounding board. Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), who knows about Malvo, isn’t doing the decent thing quite yet, but as he rationalises to his daughter sometimes there’s more than one right thing to do. Adam Goldberg is in town as one of two fixers from Fargo. And Malvo is investigating the blackmail of a local supermarket magnate, played with the usual gusto by Oliver Platt (“I got mangoes in goddamn January!”). It’s still endearingly idiosyncratic, and the pace is measured, but the episode and, on the evidence thus far, the show as a whole is “real good”, rather like dinner at the Nygaards.

Which is where Unpopcult leaves Fargo for the moment: with the return of Orphan Black, 24 just around the corner, and Person of Interest going to double bills, something has to give. We might pick it up again later in the season when things have calmed down a bit.

Fargo s1 ep 1

2006. Like the film, “a true story”. Unlike the film it’s set in Bemidji, Minnesota,  a town apparently populated by amiable souls, and watched over by patient, diligent police officers. I’ve never been to Minnesota, and most of what I think I know about it I’ve taken from the works of Garrison Keillor: “the Lutherans of Lake Wobegon don’t use much irony, like they don’t use much curry powder”. So the appearance of mysterious outsider Lorne Malvo (an excellent Billy Bob Thornton), combining an almost gentle irony with the unmistakeable don’t-fuck-with-me malevolence his surname suggests, is bound to have consequences, like a lump of potassium dropped into a bowl of water.

Meantime, underachieving insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a perpetual disappointment to his wife, a source of shame to his successful, ham-massaging younger brother (“Sometimes I tell people you’re dead”), and still being bullied by his high school nemesis Sam Ness, attends hospital, where his path crosses that of Malvo, who after very little preamble offers to kill Ness, an offer which Lester doesn’t decline quite as convincingly as he might have. From there, and also from the (literally) cold open, in which a man escapes the boot of Malvo’s car and runs off into a subzero night clad only in his underwear, the body count starts to pile up. Investigating the deaths are Chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle) and his deputy Molly Solverson (a stunning performance by newcomer Allison Tolman). An immediate complication is Ness’s reputed link to organised crime, referred to in this episode as “Fargo”, presumably the local source of all that is urban and disreputable.

This first episode, ‘The Crocodile’s Dilemma’, is amusing, deceptively smart, unexpectedly gory, and influenced by the film (I relished the sex worker’s “Yah, oh yah”) without feeling enslaved by it. Going forward there are, it seems to me, a couple of potential pitfalls: given this week’s attrition rate, if Fargo’s going to run for ten episodes it’ll need some more plots and characters, and there’s always a danger that the show will become too cluttered. I’m also not quite sold, yet, on Martin Freeman’s performance: he can do you a great put-upon, but perhaps he needs to tone down the klutziness a bit. (And although I’m no expert, I thought the accent a little shaky.) But if you’re wanting a potentially great American TV drama without all of the guys-being-guys machismo of True Detective, I’d say that Fargo might well fit your bill. I loved it.

Public Service Announcement 23 of 2014: Fargo

Fargo, the next contender for the best new drama of 2014, starts tonight. It comes with both the benefit and potential handicap of being based on Joel and Ethan Coen’s more or less perfect 1996 film of the same name, meaning that it’s probably for the best that the TV series is “inspired by” the film, rather than being a lengthy rehash.

Like True Detective, Fargo comes with an impressive cast – led this time by Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman – and also like True Detective, it arrives on UK screens borne aloft by critical hosannas. On top of that, as a Coen fanboy, I’m prepared to regard the presence of both brothers on the list of exec producers as something of a guarantee of quality. And once again British transmission is hot on the heels of America, so well done Channel 4. We’ll be reviewing the first episode at least. Thereafter, with both Orphan Black and 24 starting soon, it might be that Fargo gets squeezed out of the review schedule; we’ll see (tonight, Channel 4, 9pm).