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'Fargo' review: : First-rate performances, but the  story sags

Chris Rock stars as Loy Cannon in the

Chris Rock stars as Loy Cannon in the new season of FX's "Fargo." Credit: FX/Elizabeth Morris

SERIES "Fargo"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on FX

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) and his right-hand man, Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman) run Kansas City, Mo.'s so-called criminal "Negro Syndicate," but to keep peace with the rival Italian one — run by Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman) — Loy and Josto trade their youngest sons to each other. It's a weird, imperfect system but it works — so far. Meanwhile, a precocious teen girl, Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), whose parents run a mortuary, is puzzled by the strange nurse, Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), living across the street.

This is the 4th installment of the Noah Hawley anthology, based on the Coen Brothers' 1996 classic movie.

MY SAY This "Fargo" is a lot of things but it's not really "Fargo" or even geographically close to Fargo (602 miles south as the crow flies).

What, then, is this "Fargo?"

For a roundabout answer, let's go to a scene in another classic film, "The Maltese Falcon," where the antiheroine (Mary Astor) tells Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) that she lied about why she hired his detective agency.

Sam nods, smiles, responds: "We didn't exactly believe your story [but] you paid us more than if you'd been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right."

And that sums up what fans have expected from "Fargo" since Hawley launched this "true" crime anthology in 2014. "This is a true story," begins both movie and anthology — a whopper no one believes nor is expected to, caught up (as fans are) in the postmodern exploration here of "what is truth anyway?"

Fans do expect to be entertained, or disoriented, and thrown into the Coen wash/spin cycle of a meaningless universe that's fitfully, comically, in search of meaning by those who inhabit it. In Fargoworld, terrible things happen to good people and there's nothing they can do about it. That's a reason why the last three seasons were set in or around Minnesota, with its outsized niceness, and under a blanket of snow, symbolizing purity, death, nothingness.

Goodbye to all that, and hello to 1950 Kansas City where rival gangs throw the occasional bullet back and forth at one another, and where one highly intelligent 16-year-old tries to make sense of the absurdity around her. For a Coen analog, think "Miller's Crossing" (1990) although that had the benefit of a 115-minute running time. This "Fargo" has ten hours to fill, and Hawley must fill them. He has created a world where Jim Crow doesn't appear to exist and where Black hoodlums have as much agency (and as many guns) as the Italians. There's an "angel of death" side story, and a Bonnie-and-Clyde (or Thelma-and-Louise) one, too. There's also a stray supernatural element, as if Ryan Murphy and Stephen King briefly crashed the party.

Hawley does want to explore a big theme — what does it mean to be "American?" — but with all these stories and elements getting in the way, that only gets half his attention.

Instead, what we're left with is the craftsmanship — and that may be more than enough. Among more than a dozen memorable performances, Rock is excellent but Turman is masterful. Hawley gives Turman's Doctor Senator most of the poetry: "You all just got here yesterday," he says to a rival Italian gangster. "But we're part of this land, like the wind and the dirt."

Lines that good promise greatness. I watched the first five episodes. Who knows? Maybe the back five will eventually get around to that.

BOTTOM LINE Props for a diverse cast and first-rate performances, but "4" does sprawl, occasionally sag.

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