After months of everyone consistently telling me Fargo is one of the best shows currently on TV, I finally listened and checked it out. I should preface this by saying that I have not actually seen the movie that inspired it. As it turns out, everyone was right, because this show is a gem with a tone unlike basically anything else on television.
The genre of Fargo is probably best described as a very, very dark dramedy or black comedy, brimming with irony, intentionally unintentional humor, and, occasionally, a little bit of violence and gore. It is also an anthology crime drama—each of the two seasons that has aired so far has featured a different central mystery, time period, and cast, although the presence of one character in both seasons at different times in his life indicates they take place in the same universe. While the general consensus seems to be that season two surpassed season one in quality, I actually loved them both pretty much equally.
Season one, set in 2006, follows dorky, sad, pathetic Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a perpetually dissatisfied insurance salesman, whose simple life is turned upside when Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a criminal and con man, swoops into Lester’s Minnesota town and persuades him to make some spectacularly bad, illegal, immoral decisions. The other half of the story follows the cops on their trail—smart, clever, genuine Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), an awkward, sometimes bumbling but well-meaning officer from a nearby town that gets pulled into Lorne and Lester’s reign of terror.
Season two, set in 1979, tells the story of Ed (Jesse Plemons) and Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), a dopey, naive butcher and beautician who make the ill-advised choice to cover up a hit-and-run that turns out to be way more complicated than they bargained for because the victim was part of a notorious crime family. On the case is Molly’s father, Lou (played here by Patrick Wilson), and the sheriff (Ted Danson), who also happens to be his father-in-law. In terms of connections between seasons, not only is season two connected to season one, but season one also apparently features a connection to the movie—the buried ransom money.
Every episode of Fargo begins with a completely fictional onscreen disclaimer: “This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in [year]. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” While the events that occur are completely absurd in many ways, each season has well-rounded human beings at its core to ground the occasionally ridiculous goings on in reality. Peggy and Ed might make you want to reach through the TV and shake them almost all of the time, but we all know people like them, and they are pretty damn entertaining to watch. Similarly, Molly and her entire family, across both seasons, are kind, well-meaning people you naturally root for.
When it comes to pacing and building tension, it doesn’t get much better than this. The top-notch production design, editing, and direction enable the sense of dread and doom to grow over the course of each 10-episode season. Just how suspenseful it is is made even more impressive by the fact that the audience is basically in on everything from the beginning. We see Peggy run over someone with her car, we see Lester commit murder(s). The audience regularly has more information than almost all of the characters, and yet the show manages to keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time. Also, this show is the perfect case for why 10 episodes is the perfect number for a dense, meticulously plotted, contained story—any more or less and something would be lost. There is little to no filler, and quiet character moments are perfectly interspersed with big shoot-outs or murders. All of it is done in a way that is simultaneously flashy and understated. It is also spectacularly acted all around, with a large ensemble cast in each season that goes far beyond those specifically mentioned here.
While Fargo has every common trapping of so-called “prestige dramas,” the tone is what sets it apart. It takes place in our world, comments on human nature, yet also requires some degree of suspension of disbelief. Creator Noah Hawley has already said season 3 will take place in 2010, which leaves open the possibility for many characters from the first two seasons to return. Let me tell you, I can’t wait to see what kind of trouble they get into.