TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Tonight, the TV drama series "Fargo" begins its second season on the FX Network. It has a new story and a new cast, but one familiar character is at its center. Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Last season when it premiered, "Fargo," the TV series, had to overcome the misconception that it was a remake of "Fargo," the fabulous Coen brothers movie. Instead, this TV "Fargo" was series creator Noah Hawley's reimagining of the "Fargo" mood and sensibility. Plot lines and settings were all new, but the style was the same. Characters were quirky, the humor was dark, the violence was shockingly sudden and the conversations were slow, yet often filled with menace. The Coen brothers liked Hawley's take so much, they not only approved of the TV version, but signed on as executive producers. And as season one's murder case unfurled with terrific central performances by Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Hanks, and Allison Tolman, "Fargo" more than stood on its own as one of last season's most delicious TV treats. And now, it's back for season two. But not one of the actors who made season one so great has returned, because this year's storyline is a prequel to last year's TV show. It's set in 1979 and dramatizes the grisly murders that Keith Carradine's Lou Solverson described in passing in an episode of "Fargo's" first season. He called it madness, really, a case with a stack of dead bodies. For this season two prequel, we see Lou Solverson as a younger man, a state trooper, now played by Patrick Wilson. That's the familiar character, though portrayed by a different actor, at the center of season two of "Fargo." And all around him are actors who are just as playful and charismatic. This season's "Fargo" is almost ridiculously loaded with great performances, a lot of them from former sitcom stars. Ted Danson of "Cheers" plays Lou's father-in-law, the town sheriff. Jean Smart of "Designing Women" plays the matriarch of a local crime family. Brad Garrett of "Everybody Loves Raymond" plays an incoming mobster from Kansas City. But there are non-sitcom actors, too, and their portrayals are just as funny and unpredictable. Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Jeffrey Donovan - they're all worthy of mention, populating a town and a series that rewards you no matter where you look.
Here's an example of exactly what I mean. In the premiere episode, the youngest son of the local crime family, played by Kieran Culkin, visits the Waffle Hut to grab some private time with a local judge, played by Ann Cusack, who's eating a burger alone. His goal is to threaten her into reversing a ruling that threatens his business plans, but it turns out she's a lot tougher and scarier than he is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")
KIERAN CULKIN: (As Rye Gerhardt) Hi.
ANN CUSACK: (As character) No.
CULKIN: (As Rye Gerhardt) What do you mean, no?
CUSACK: (As character) Whatever you're selling, I ain't buying.
CULKIN: (As Rye Gerhardt) First of all, I'm not selling anything. And second...
CUSACK: (As character) You need to make me another burger, this one's a coaster.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Yes ma'am.
CULKIN: (As Rye Gerhardt) Hey your majesty, you're going to change your mind about something - a case.
CUSACK: (As character) Or what?
CULKIN: (As Rye Gerhardt) Or you'll find out, is what. This isn't one of those optional check A or B scenarios. I'm going to change your mind.
CUSACK: (As character) One day, the devil came to God and said let's make a bet between you and me for the soul of a man. And from on high, they looked down on Job, a devout man, religious. And the devil said, I can change his mind and make him curse your name. And God said try him, you will only fail. So the devil begins. He kills Job's herds and takes his fields. He plagues him with boils and throws him on the ash heap, but Job's mind remains unchanged. So I ask you son, if the devil couldn't change Job's mind, how the hell are you going to change mine?
BIANCULLI: That's a great scene, and it's only getting started. And these aren't even major characters, but every character in Fargo is worth watching. And because this is a season-long anthology series, every character, minor or major, risks not surviving a tense confrontation. Well, except for Lou Solverson, whom we know will live because he shows up as an older man in season one. Here's a taste from episode two, when Ted Danson, as sheriff Hank Larsson, stops Bokeem Woodbine as visiting bad-guy Mike Milligan and his two silent thugs on a desolate, snowy country road. The dialogue is polite, but the sense of danger is palpable.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")
BOKEEM WOODBINE: (As Mike Milligan) What's this about Sheriff, if I'm OK to ask?
TED DANSON: (As Hank Larsson) Now, if I were to search you three, would I find weapons?
WOODBINE: (As Mike Milligan) No, sir. You have nothing to fear from us. We're just passing through town on our way to point south, thought we'd stop for some waffles - Gil's idea. Heard you had some real good ones around here. So you can imagine our surprise when we find the place closed and apparently, the scene of a crime.
DANSON: (As Hank Larsson) What size shoes you boys wear?
WOODBINE: (As Mike Milligan) Now that is a truly odd question.
BIANCULLI: The simultaneous humor and suspense here is a hard act to carry-off, but it's done flawlessly and consistently. This season of "Fargo" may be the closest thing I've seen to "Twin Peaks" since "Twin Peaks." It's that singularly stylized, that oddball and endearing in its dialogue and performances and that instantly addictive.
GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, the story of a right-wing religious zealot and the leader he assassinated. We talk with journalist Dan Ephron. His new book is about the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the ultra-Orthodox young Jewish man who killed him. Ephron served as the Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.