“Fargo” returns Wednesday to FX for a third season as a television show, with its ice and snow and whimsical way of talking, playing variations on themes set down by Joel and Ethan Coen in the 1996 movie of the same name.
It’s the animating principal of the franchise that a person or persons who would not ordinarily get mixed up in murder will get mixed up in murder, and to say that it happens again here is no spoiler. As before, dark forces will arrive from out of town; big-city operators will come up against small-town rubes and those they take for rubes. And police officers, used to quiet days, will find their capabilities tested. (Fill in those blanks, add winter weather and you get “Fargo.”)
A Kafkaesque prologue, set in East Berlin in 1988, regarding an unfortunate confusion of tenant and apartment, leads, through a time-traveling transition (via a picture on the wall), to 2010 Minnesota, in which a similar, happier story makes the basis of an anniversary toast. (Despite the stated chronology, it looks, feels and sounds like some indistinctly older time — “Fargo” time.)
Notwithstanding the customary puckish insistence that the story you are about to see is based on actual events, “Fargo” is a fairy tale, full of fairy tale devices. (Last season, there was a spaceship; this season a character is seemingly invisible to electric eyes.) Indeed, a title card at the top reads “This is a true story,” but the “true” fades away (even as an official inquisitor says, “We are not here to tell stories, we are here to tell the truth,” in fact the last thing he cares about). The central plot line, regarding two brothers; the attempted robbery of an object that will lead to riches; a hasty bargain coming back to haunt the bargainer — these are all purest purest Grimm.
Ewan McGregor, sporting the local accent, plays brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy. At some time in the not recent past, the older Emmit bamboozled the younger Ray, or so Ray feels, out of his fair share of their inheritance. Now Emmit is “The Parking Lot King of Minnesota,” with a fancy home and a long marriage, while Ray is an indifferent parole officer dating one of his parolees — Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Nikki Swango — and driving a rusting Corvette that is all that remains of his patrimony.
As Eden Valley police chief Gloria Burgle, whose department is about to be absorbed into a bigger one, Carrie Coon occupies the same position as did Frances McDormand in the film, and Allison Tolman and Patrick Wilson in the series’ earlier seasons, though she brings her own dry take to the part; villainous advance man David Thewlis, with crooked teeth, florid speech and supernatural sangfroid, echoes earlier characters played by Brad Garrett and Bokeem Woodbine.
Ray, who is slow and stuck, and Nikki, who is quick and aspirational — she sees competitive bridge, with Ray as her partner, as her path to wealth — recall Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in Season 2, more sympathetic than they probably have a right to be. (Like the noir-crossed loser in a James M. Cain novel, you root for them somehow.) It’s as if, almost mystically, the same story is fated to be played out again and again.
It is a thing of resonances and coincidences, of old business that comes back to infect the new, and it’s easy to see why Noah Hawley, who adapted “Fargo” for the smaller screen, was chosen (and chose to) turn Marvel Comics’ “Legion” into a series. Both shows stay aloft on the same semi-comic, semi-formal, semi-fantastical aesthetic; each converts violence into dark comedy.
“It’s so perfectly, sublimely bland.” says Thewlis, of Minnesota, possibly to his eventual peril; others before him had made that mistake. Only two episodes were available for review, and it’s impossible to say where the series is headed and what mess it will make before the finale sweeps things clean. (Goodness tends to triumph.) But this is a beautifully constructed space for a viewer to occupy for a while, while the story plays out — it’s a place to go, though, title aside, that place is not necessarily, or ever, Fargo, N.D.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd