Monday 23 October 2017

The TV guide: Blood on snow... the return of Fargo

Kirsten Dunst in Fargo.
Kirsten Dunst in Fargo.

Really, Fargo shouldn't work. Not only is it a spin-off of a film - the Coen Brothers' excellent 1996 tale of one man's desperate greed, and the way that creates an unholy mess in the lives of all around him, starring William H Macy and Frances McDormand - it is set in the bleak landscape of Midwestern America, and tells the stories of a different set of characters in each season.

No run-on, no captured impulse to find out what happened to those whom the viewers invested in last time around. So bye-bye Billy Bob Thornton's malevolent drifter Lorne Malvo, bye-bye Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard.

So far, so True Detective, the second series of which pretty much chucked out everything from the first, and not always in a good way. So what's to stop Fargo going the same way? Not only does it jump characters, but the second season of Fargo has jumped decades, backwards (which also means that if you missed the first one, there's no problem joining in now). Emmy-award-winning season one was set in Minnesota in 2006, season two goes back to 1979, to the childhood of Molly, season one's main protagonist, in a world of beige Formica interiors, UFO fear, mob wars and Ronald Reagan. Such is the precise period setting that Jimmy Carter's 'Crisis of Confidence' speech is used both as backdrop and scene-setter: "I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people. In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy secure nation . . ." For director Noah Hawley, that date is very deliberate, a year when: "America was at its lowest point," with rising crime, a struggling economy, and widespread anger, thanks to Watergate and Vietnam. "There was this sense that the 1960s flower child era had turned into something ugly."

Because beyond all the faithful trappings of the era and the undoubted charm of nostalgia, this is the story of a struggle - small-town America at war with the rising tide of corporate supremacy, and the efforts of two women to escape the kind of role and responses laid out for them by the time and place they live in. Along with some drug-trafficking syndicates battling for supremacy, and a hit-and-run accident that leaves the question of how to dispose of unexpected bodies.

In fact, the trailer brings to mind that Hitchcock quote: "Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints." Here, we not only have blondes - Kirsten Dunst, as beautician Peggy Blomquist, fighting hard to avoid the obvious outcomes of her life-story as a married women in 1970s Midwestern America - but also plenty of actual blood on snow. Alongside, there is the film's notable mix of folksy humour and intense menace, the theme, as described by Ted Danson, who plays Hank Larsson, gruff local sheriff and Second World War veteran, is "innocent, earnest middle-American people confronting savagery and evil."

Alongside Danson and Dunst are Jesse Plemons as her foolishly obliging but also implacable butcher husband; Patrick Wilson as a plodding-but-inexorable cop, Jean Smart as an alarmingly chilly but down-home drug-dealer who begins to come into her own when her husband and partner-in-crime falls ill, and Jeffrey Donovan as her surly son.

Stylish, clever, carefully-plotted and with excellent acting, Fargo season one was a delight. Season two, so far, is looking good. As for the thread that hangs it all together, no need to over-think it. As Hawley says: "Joel and Ethan Coen, they never do the same thing twice, so it felt like we can't either. But then, what makes it Fargo? It's a state of mind. It's a tone, a voice. You'll know it when you see it."

Fargo, season two, starts tomorrow, Channel4, at 9pm

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