With delays continuing to mount across Hollywood on big and small screens alike, it seemed poetic that the fourth season of Noah Hawley’s FX anthology series “Fargo” would leave the month of October to dedicate ourselves to whatever Midwestern crime tale he cooked up.
Scheduled for release back in April, the show was delayed in response to the pandemic before arriving via FX on Hulu a few weeks ago, giving me hope that perhaps we would get one last drop of good television before production stoppages slowed down release schedules for good.
As par the course in 2020 thus far, the wellspring that is “Fargo” has run dry — to say the least.
Shedding the Coen Brothers inspired farm fields and country roads that painted seasons past, the new installment of Hawley’s show takes place in 1950s Kansas City, Mo. and hosts a slew of curious characters who manage to call it home. The arrival of a new African American crime family and mobster Loy Cannon, played by comedian Chris Rock in a very against-type role, is just another in a long line of gangster crews that have come to make a name for themselves in KC 一 drawing the attention and anger of the resident Italian crime family in the city the Faddas, equally led by an oddly cast Jason Schwartzman as de-facto patriarch Josto.
From the moment both sides meet in the opening episode — shot with spectacle that only Hawley provides — it’s clear that a massive power struggle is about to take place. Each family represents a new iteration of the American Dream that has come to the forefront in successive decades, fittingly described through voiceover narration on the history of the community by middle schooler and supporting character Ethelrida Smutny, portrayed by E’myri Crutchfield.
Such a storytelling device can often be helpful to set up the dynamic for the tale to follow, yet this one feels like an attempt to come off as profound in a time — in the past and present moment — where the concept of being both American and owning your own identity has completely changed.
In the right hands, we could be treated to a message. Instead, Hawley’s writing comes out feeling like a middle school history report on how racism is bad — forcing the audience to sit through nearly 30 minutes of background noise before the main account begins.
While the cast, which features performances from Jessie Buckley (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”), Timothy Olyphant (“Justified") and Ben Whishaw (“Skyfall”) looks just as stacked as previous iterations, Rock as a crime boss is far too much of a departure to create any real tension among the opposing sides.
His attempts to share profound bits of wisdom through metaphors and parables — as all great crime characters do — feels overly unemotional for the exuberance that generally saturates the comedian’s performances, failing to capture the same transition from frenetic to restrained that has made other similar castings — Sandler — more successful.
It doesn’t help that I couldn’t get Michael Scott’s impression of Rock from The Office’s “Diversity Day” episode out of my head either, but in any case, the entire routine isn’t at all convincing.
This miscasting is paired with Schwartzman (“Royal Tenenbaums”) as another unconvincing mob leader, his smarmy voice and presence not doing anything to strike a semblance of worry into viewers who hoped to see a goofier version of the Sopranos play out on the Great Plains. Despite being half Italian in real life, he doesn’t inhabit any of the traits or expectations we’ve come to know — and love — from previous mafia struggles, leaving behind a disappointing performance that couldn’t keep my attention.
While struggles with lead performances were tough to watch, a lone bright spot exists in the form of Buckley — whose place on my up and coming “must watch” list continues to be cemented following her brilliant performance in “Ending Things'' and supporting turn here. Dolling up a thick Midwestern accent as Oraetta Mayflower, a nurse with a penchant for impractical patient treatments, she inhabits all of the quirky mannerisms and snappy colloquialisms that made previous “Fargo'' adventures so satisfying. I’m intrigued to see what her character schemes her way into week after week, and her work again shows the immense range she possesses even with limited screen time.
Archetypes aside, it’s hard to figure out exactly where the season wants to go — which I’d venture to guess will be course corrected before the end of its 11-episode run, but for now just leads to repetitive conversations ranging from capitalism, to immigration and eventually landing somewhere along the lines of crimes that have yet to be committed.
If the season is aiming to be a black comedy, it fails on the comedic front — despite having one of the funniest alive in a starring role — and doesn’t provide any of the outrageous violence or wild trickery that pervade in both the Coen’s original work or Hawley’s successful adaptations of their style and tone. The beauty of previous seasons came in trying to explain why a mild-mannered Minnesota insurance salesman would kill his wife and go about his business like nothing happened. Here, the violence is expected, still doesn’t find a way to show up, and doesn’t drive the story forward either.
If the drama wants to be a more serious take on the intersections between class, race and similarities between opposing cultures through the lens of 1950s America — it fails on the originality scope as well. Most elements are imitations of gangster period pieces and can’t create enough distance to stand on their own, which produces a caper that isn’t compelling enough to keep watching even if it somehow picks up pace. I love a slow burning mystery more than anyone, but there’s barely a spark here. “Fargo” left me feeling as cold as its namesake, a bad sign for weeks of wintertime television to follow.
If you want, you can find the first five episodes of “Fargo” available on FX on Hulu.