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TV Series Review

Critics considered it one of the best (and grimmest) movies of the late 20th century, doncha know.

Released in 1996, Ethan and Joel Coen's film Fargo is a dramedy as dark and cold as the north woods winter in which it takes place. It's filled with quirky characters, dark deeds and a now-infamous wood chipper. It used its unlikely "true" story, as well as its murderous charm, to gain a place on the National Film Registry and secure a couple of Oscars.

The FX show, now in its third and perhaps (if the rumors are true) final season, is no less quirky, no less praised and, in truth, no less dark.

Cold Deeds in Colder Lands

FX's Fargo, created for television by Noah Hawley, embraces the strange, at times gruesome comic vibe of the Coen brothers. Each episode begins with a crawl saying, "This is a true story … 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." That crawl, every season, is a boldfaced lie.

The stories themselves differ each year, as does the cast. Allison Tolman and Billy Bob Thornton anchored the first season, centered around a series of murders linked to Thornton's mysterious character, Malvo. (It won an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries and was nominated for seven more.) Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons play persons of interest in the second season, covering up a hit-and-run murder. (It was nominated for another 18 Primetime Emmys.)

The third season focuses on Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor), his brother Emmit (also played by McGregor) and a contested and valuable stamp—one that Ray and fiancée Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) try unsuccessfully to swipe. Instead, they must cover up a pair of deaths as brother Emmit finds himself embroiled in some increasingly shady dealings.

But while the stories change from season to season, the content we find feels starkly—and darkly—consistent.

And Then Comes the Wood Chipper

This melancholy series does like to sit and brood for stretches. But when it gets moving, it descends with the fury of a North Dakota blizzard. People die in horrible ways, and not just in wood chippers. Blood drips, gurgles and spews. S-words and other vulgarities are sprinkled on the snow right along the blood. And sex can be problematic too—if not visually, at least topically. (In one episode, for example, an extended conversation revolves around bestiality.)

And then there's that über-depressing undercurrent the Coens are so well known for, migrating as they do from quirkily bleak to bleakly quirky, depending on the project. In the midst of that? God, sometimes. But not in the way you might like. God can be an inscrutable and vengeful here. Meanwhile, weak men do unspeakable things as unsung law officers struggle to make sense of it.

And to all of that, while shivering in the cold and dark, Fargo asks us to laugh—laugh in the way that men do when there is no hope.

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Episode Reviews

Fargo: May 23, 2017 "The Lord of No Mercy"
Fargo: 5-20-2014

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Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo; Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson; Colin Hanks as Gus Grimly; Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard; Oliver Platt as Stavros Milos; Bob Odenkirk as Bill Oswalt; Joey King as Greta Grimly; Keith Carradine as Lou Solverson; Adam Goldberg as Mr. Numbers; Joshua Close as Chaz Nygaard; Glenn Howerton as Don Chumph; Russell Harvard as Mr. Wrench; Ewan McGregor as Emmit/Ray Stussy; Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Nikki Swango; David Thewlis as V.M. Varga; Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist; Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson; Jesse Plemons as Ed Blumquist; Ted Danson as Hank Larsson; Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan; Brad Mann as Gale Kitchen; Jean Smart as Floyd Gerhardt

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Paul Asay