There’s something to be said for sticking with a successful formula. In today’s pop-culture age, when we demand that our entertainers and icons continually evolve and move forward, it’s almost refreshing that certain celebrity types stick to a familiar script in charting their respective paths to success.
Adele does it. George Strait did it. The Kardashians, regardless of your opinion of them, definitely do it. Hell, Katy Perry’s career is suffering of late precisely because she is NOT doing it.
Sometimes, staying in your lane is the way to maintain relevance. Other times, doing so falls victim to the law of diminishing returns. FX’s Fargo, which premiered in April, is an example of both the former and the latter.
The show premiered in April 2014, and audiences were already skeptical. After all, how was FX to adapt a 1996 film from the enigmatic Coen Brothers, one that somehow walked that magic line between dark comedy and grisly violence? After all, eliciting laughs from a film in which a dude goes through a wood chipper is no easy feat. Really, adapting anything that originated from the Coen brothers is a feat unto itself; these guys are certainly not the types to stick to one singular formula in crafting some of the finest, most distinct cinema of the modern era.
So, yeah, there was skepticism surrounding the first season of Fargo. And all it did was provide ten of the finest, most tense episodes of television since Breaking Bad left the air the year before. Not only that, it managed to mix in that unique blend of Minnesota humor with some of the most unsavory characters in the era of peak TV.
This held particularly true in the case of Season 1 “big bad” Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, whose performance was as menacing as his hairpiece was unsightly. So unsettling and villainous was Thornton that he rightly won the 2015 Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Television Film. Not only that, the first season of Fargo was a relative hit — it averaged approximately 2 million viewers per episode.
So confident were FX and show mastermind Noah Hawley that the first season of Fargo was no fluke, they returned the following year with a show that was, in many ways, a mirror image of its predecessor. The pleasant Minnesota setting remained, as did the unique brand of off-beat comedy, straightforward storytelling and, of course, plenty of murder and mayhem; like the Coens before him, Hawley is adept at making violence seem comical or spine-chilling, depending on what the scene calls for.
The second season added a totally new cast and did so with skepticism long gone and expectations in its place. All it did was give audiences one of the finest seasons of television of the past 25 years, along with some of the finest performances (seriously, Bokeem Woodbine should win every acting award ever invented for his portrayal of Mike Milligan) of that same timeframe.
So when it was announced that Fargo would return with a third season, it seemed a slam dunk. The setting would remain, the era would again change (Season 1 took place in 2006, Season 2 in 1979, Season 3 in 2010), the characters more or less would play to their previous archetypes, the surreal mix of violence and dark comedy would stay in place.
It couldn’t miss. Except it did.
Season 3 of Fargo has been downright solid in comparison to other cable fare, and it’s been fine when compared to previous seasons of Fargo. But something has been lacking as the show draws toward its inevitable bloody conclusion in two weeks.
The story line has been good enough, but not particularly engrossing. Ewan McGregor pulling double duty as estranged brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy was a neat trick, but one that mostly felt gimmicky and didn't really pay off. Carrie Coon has been her usual great self as police chief Gloria Burgle, and David Thewlis has surely had his moments as Season 3's villain, Varga.
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The issue, however, is that everything has paled in comparison to seasons past. McGregor is a fine actor, but his characters simply haven’t clicked the way they did for Martin Freeman and Jesse Plemons in previous seasons. The best episode of this season was a bottle episode that found Coon’s Gloria Burgle on a wild-goose chase in California, but unfortunately, she hasn’t gotten quite the screen time that Allison Tolman and Patrick Wilson did in seasons 1 and 2, respectively, and the show has suffered for it. Thewlis’s Varga is a disturbing figure, but unlike Thornton, Jean Smart and Woodbine before him, is just kind of a gross, offbeat, one-note villain.
Hawley and FX may have already seen the writing on the wall. FX chief John Landgraf recently said we may never see another season of the acclaimed dramedy, and while he sold it along the lines of not wanting to put out material that's inferior to previous seasons, this is already the case.
Fargo, for the first two years of its run, could have made its case for being the strongest, most cohesive program on television. Now it’s simply a pretty good show with all the familiarity of its predecessors but less of what made those predecessors so great in the first place.
Third time’s a charm? In the case of Fargo, unfortunately not.