BEVERLY HILLS - I sat down a few days ago with Noah Hawley, creator and writer of "Fargo," to ponder one of the oldest questions in the TV universe which, coincidentally, is also among the major questions of the 2015-16 TV season: Can lightning strike twice?
Notably on a vast undifferentiated plain covered in snow and peopled with characters whose fundamental decency, kindness, and stoicism can be turned inside out in moments of blinding violence?
"Fargo" was one of the sensations of 2014 season -- 18 Emmy nominations, wins in three major categories (including best miniseries), critical and viewer acclaim, and maybe best of all, something that might be called "stickiness." It was one of those rare TV events that offered countless scenes that remain unforgettable -- mine (naturally) include the brutal murder of a decent, solid character named "Vern;" or the time fish fell from the sky; or that harrowing moment Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks) stopped the car driven by Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton).
Even the look on Gus's face during that scene remains with me.
Like I said. Sticky.
TV this remarkable doesn't come along every day or every season, but this fall, "Fargo" will try to do this all over again -- in a new 10-parter with a new cast of characters, entirely different story, and even a time frame (1979) set 30 years before the first installment took place.
The question of lightning hitting the same spot twice is the one on everyone's mind here at the TV critics tour -- including FX executives who like everyone else know that lightning hit wide of the mark on the second season of "True Detective," which ends Sunday night.
"TD2" was dismissed by critics and even met a collective shrug in the social mediaverse. And if HBO -- the most successful purveyor of TV programming in the world -- couldn't figure out how to avoid a sophomore slump, how can Noah Hawley?
A New Yorker by birth, Hawley, 47, is slightly built and soft-spoken, with cool-blue-gray eyes and (on the day I saw him) a four-day stubble. He's a novelist who descends from a long line of writers (his mother, Louise Armstrong, wrote a famous nonfiction investigation of incest, "Kiss Daddy Goodnight").
He's written four novels, and owes his publisher a fifth -- which is his current obsession, besides promoting the new season of "Fargo," which wrapped production in the spring.
We spoke about the new series -- I've seen the pilot and I like it -- but before we get to that, the quick overview: It begins with a black-and-white scene from the movie set of a fictional movie, "Massacre at Sioux Falls," where cast and crew are waiting for the star Ronald Reagan to get in costume; it then segues to the opening scene.
t's a Coen-esque open (the Coens' "Fargo," of course inspired this series but they have little to no creative input -- that's all Hawley) which momentarily throws the viewer.
But not for long -- you're thrown into a familiar and unfamiliar world, on those northern plains where the snow flies. A family of criminals -- whose matriarch, Floyd, is played by Jean Smart -- is in the midst of an internal power struggle, while outside gangs are looking to take over their turf. One of those gangs is headed by Mike Milligan -- played by Bokeem Woodbine.
That movie open does portend a real massacre -- a terrible shooting at a diner near Luverne, Minnesota, which sets in motion the other story lines: Police officers Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) and Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) arrive to investigate; a seemingly innocent couple, Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst) while her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) are pulled in too.
Solverson you've met before: In the first season, he was played by Keith Carradine. By then, Lou had left the police force, but vividly remembered the killings from years earlier. In one brief scene he cryptically warns his daughter, Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) about the murders he had investigated years earlier.
That one brief scene refers to the entire second season, which begins Monday, Oct. 12 at 10 p.m.
Here's an edited version of my chat with Hawley:
I understand Bruce Campbell will play your Ronald Reagan? How will he figure in this series?
"Yes, he'll be in the fifth hour -- coming to town on a whistle-stop tour, and [Solverson] is assigned to his protection detail while he's in the region. Bruce grew up in Michigan, just across the border from where Reagan grew up."
Why does Reagan appear in the second "Fargo"?
"He's in the hour basically as both a personality and representative of the sort of American 'morning in America' moment that hangs over the whole season. It's 1979, and it's when he did come along, before the 'morning in America.' He came along in fact the night before -- it's one of the darkest moments in American history [in the late '70s] and so the element, the specter of Reagan, hangs over this story. It felt appropriate to bring him in and have some fun with it. He's in Luverne to do a little rubber chicken [campaigning] at the local VFW."
Why open with a fictitious Ronald Reagan movie?
"The movie was called 'Massacre at Sioux Falls' and [viewers know the series] is about a massacre at Sioux Falls, so we start with this fake Ronald Reagan movie from 1951. It's this Waiting for Godot moment, where we are all waiting for Reagan. That plays into other elements of the season too. Joel and Ethan [Coen] have done this [sort of open] too. There are no rules for how to tell a story. You can start a movie in a shetl for [2009's Coen movie] 'A Serious Man' then move into a 1960s America in the Midwest. It requires you to think about why it is there."
You've previously described the universe of 'Fargo' as this big leatherbound book of true-life crime in the upper Midwest, and that each season is a chapter in that book. What chapter is this?
"Well, this season started out as a lark -- it came out of Keith Carradine's mouth [in the first season] when he looks at his young daughter and says, if this is what I think it is, you may not want to go down that road. I've seen something like this before. Part of the fun [of the anthology form] is that you can lay stuff into the dialogue and you can then play into that later."
How many chapters are in this big old book?
"Every year is a new year. The first season hewed very closely to the movie in terms of a female protagonist -- it had a car salesman, we had an insurance salesman, for example. So the elements were close enough for you to see how they were connected. This season 'Fargo is more abstracted. We have two male protagonists and we've taken the iconic female role [and turned it into the roles] played by Kirsten Dunst and Jean Smart. We won't be retreading old ground, and that allows us to express the dynamic. that polite societies are sometimes the most violent. We can keep going until we're out of ideas."
Are you worried about a sophomore slump?
"There are two questions -- one is creative, the other is the result and how it plays in the culture. One I have control over, the other I don't. Is there pressure to duplicate the incredible awards success I had? We might not win any this time. All I worry about is whether I can fully realize this vision and create something that's the same but different."