Some critics relish the role of the contrarian, but when your colleagues all love something and you don’t, it’s like being at a party where everyone else is out having a great time out on the dance floor and you’re standing off to the side, grumbling, “This music sucks.”
That said, I have watched the second season of “Fargo,” and I am duty-bound to grumble: This music sucks.
Virtually without exception, the reviews for “Fargo’s” second season are glowing. It has a 100% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes , and a nigh-perfect Metacritic score, derived from 21 and 17 reviews, respectively. The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon calls it “perfection,” and Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson ranks it as “currently the best show on television,” noting its attention to “issues — feminism, Black Lives Matter, and post-traumatic stress — that are at the forefront of American cultural discussions today.”
It’s not that I disagree with the claims of contemporary resonance, exactly. It’s there, all right, but in a manner that evokes Andrew Sarris’ enduring phrase, “strained seriousness,” which he defined as works whose ambitions tend “to inflate rather than expound.” The first four episodes that FX sent out in advance are crammed with bald statements of theme, beginning with a heavy-handed black-and-white prologue that depicts the making of a Hollywood movie called “Massacre at Sioux Falls” starring an unseen Ronald Reagan. On a battlefield littered with the corpses of U.S. soldiers, a white man from the movie’s crew makes uneasy small talk with a Native American extra as they wait for Reagan to emerge from the makeup trailer. “It was the last big battle before the…” the crew member stammers. “I mean, what came after — phew!”
“Fargo’s” second second season, which rewinds the show’s timeline to 1979, opens with a massacre of its own. And what comes after, phew. The first season’s Achilles heel was creator Noah Hawley’s apparent conviction that the best way to make great TV was to constantly signify its greatness, a tendency that snowballed as episode lengths crept upward to make room for more ponderous monologues and ersatz fables. It was redeemed, largely, by its cast, especially Allison Tolman as intrepid detective Molly Solverson and Martin Freeman as murderous weasel Lester Nygaard. But though season 2’s cast has a few gems, especially Jean Smart as the matriarch of a North Dakota crime syndicate, the performances are flatter, the characters more narrowly conceived, the better to take their place in Hawley’s symbolic pageant.
Some of the season’s outlines don’t come into focus until after the first episode, so I’ll remain vague with respect to the unfolding plot, but it’s not really the story that’s the problem. The setup is a solid entry in what might be called Dumbass Noir: Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin), the youngest and least ept of the above-mentioned family crime syndicate’s three living sons, tracks a judge to a Minnesota Waffle Hut, where he intends to intimidate her until she unfreezes the assets of a typewriter salesman with whom he’s attempting to start up a side business of his own. The judge doesn’t scare easy — when Rye tells her “There’s two ways this can go,” she interrupts him to ask, “Is one of them the hard way?” — but she forgets that even idiots can load a revolver, and in an instant, she and two others are dead.
Its a small crime, at least compared to the bloodshed that viewers of “Fargo’s” first season know is coming: Molly’s dad, Lou, played by Keith Carradine, recalled a Sioux Falls massacre (get it?) in which bodies were stacked so high you “could’ve climbed to the second floor.” The investigation of the diner murders brings in his younger self, plays by Patrick Wilson, and the local sheriff (Ted Danson), who is also his father-in-law. Its aftermath also ensnares a small-town beautician (Kristen Dunst) and her lump of a husband (Jesse Plemons), and adds further instability to the Gerhardt clan, which faces threats from both within and without. As in “Fargo’s” first season, the various stories are in no hurry to converge, but we know that they will, and there will be blood.
So far, so good, right? We can quarrel about intangibles like the quality of the actors’ performances, which attempt to mix broad caricature and stereotype-inverting specificity in the Coen brothers style so many have died trying to achieve, but premise-wise, “Fargo” is on solid ground. It’s in its constant efforts to underline that premise’s significance, to drive it home in one way or another with virtually every scene, that the show’s second season grows comically, and eventually painfully, overstated.
Perhaps with a week to breathe between them, “Fargo’s” recapitulations of theme wouldn’t be so exhausting. But in any context, a line like “It’s not just the business — it’s the country” (from a later episode) would land with a thud. Like several of the show’s characters, young Lou is a Vietnam veteran, which is true to the period, but after you’ve had a Vietnam vet contemplate the lifeless eyes of a corpse, you don’t need someone else suggesting that he and his fellow soldiers “brought the war home with you.” Hawley strip-mines the period for cultural references and thematic signifiers — Love Canal and Pol Pot are name-dropped within 30 seconds of each other — with the ghost of Reagan lurking in the wings. (In case we should miss the significance of the season’s opening prologue, the first episode is title “Waiting for Dutch,” which was Reagan’s nickname.) But unlike the careful recreation of FX’s “The Americans,” “Fargo’s” verges on camp, with funky soundtrack cuts and split-screen effects reminding us what a wacky decade the ’70s — or, really, “the ’70s” — was. Any real sense of chronology is moot. After the diner massacre, Nick Offerman’s conspiracy nut remarks, “First Watergate, now this?” No: First Watergate, then the Ford administration, then the Carter administration, then this.
Rewatching “Waiting for Dutch,” I was better able to separate the moments that work from those that don’t: The diner killings are gracefully staged by director Randall Einhorn, and there are a handful of quiet moments where the show stops grasping for effect and simply breathes, like a shot of a husband and wife as they settle into bed for the night, the shadows of snowflakes falling all around them. But as the season continues, those moments are few and far between, and more nettlesome elements, like Bokeem Woodbine’s garrulous, Tarantino-derived enforcer, and a pair of mute, identically dressed henchmen straight-up swiped from “Breaking Bad,” come to the fore. “Fargo” can’t seem to stop reminding you how clever it is, and how much it has to say, and ends up accomplishing neither. Apparently paying homage to the Coens wasn’t enough. Noah Hawley had to craft a season that could have been written by Barton Fink.