Friends: It’s been three days since I’ve seen an episode of the third season of Fargo, and I’m here to tell you I can’t remember much about it.
You might think that says a lot about me, but I think it says a lot more about the two episodes of Fargo provided for review.
Let me explain two things up front:
1) If you liked the first two season of Fargo, and dug Legion, I think you’ll probably dig what unfolds in the first two episodes. Don’t despair.
2) It’s no fun being the turd in the punchbowl when it comes to shows like this.
I’ve never been completely on the Fargo bandwagon, but I’ve never been this fully off it, either. I’m stating this because I think it’s important to set context: If you continually hate everything I like, or love everything I hate, then both sets of data points are equally useful! And with shows like Fargo, there’s even more of an illusion than normal that there’s a “right” opinion about it, as if “not loving it” isn’t an option.
I chafe at that notion when it comes to any show, and that undoubtedly feeds somewhat into my resistance. But from the outset, Fargo has felt like the kind of show that aspires to be the Platonic ideal of what the Golden Age Of TV should look and feel like. That’s not a terrible goal! But there’s something ultimately academic about the way it unfolds, substituting heart for precision, artfully composed montages over bleeding hearts, distancing irony over embracing pathos. And that can get you pretty far, especially when done with the skill and visual bravado this show deploys. But it can’t take you all the way.
To put it another way, Fargo is a show I enjoy looking at more than watching. That probably sounds ridiculous, but what I mean is I get more out of a freeze-frame than I do moving pictures. If this show were a silent movie, I don’t think too much would be lost in translation, and it might actually get closer to the heart of what I imagine it’s trying to achieve. The vast snowy winterscapes, the benign storefronts, and carefully cultivated offices suggest decades if not centuries of stories.
So why is the one the third season’s chosen to tell so darn dull?
“But you haven’t seen the entire season!” some of you are crying out, most likely in the comments below. “How can you know it’s dull?” Well, I watched two episodes, and I’m hard-pressed to remember much of anything that happened. I’ve been lucky enough to see certain shows months before they air, and the ones that left a mark didn’t dull in the passage of time. This time around, I can remember a few things:
The double-casting of Ewan McGregor, an actor I love, might turn out to be the shark-jumping moment of this entire series. It is distracting and constantly draws attention to itself, even if the effect work to blend both characters into the same scenes are pretty flawless.
There’s definitely familiar elements that start things down the path of blood-soaked tragedy, but the beats are so familiar after one film and two series that maybe they are getting too familiar for the show’s own good.
In terms of characters that pulled at my heartstrings, Allison Tolman and Ted Danson did incredible work in their respective seasons of giving me an emotional post upon which to hang my heart. By this time in each season, I was deeply invested in their characters’ well being. Here? Nothing, and it’s not for lack of trying on the show’s part.
I’m sure Carrie Coon and Mary Elizabeth Winstead will have stand-out episodes later this season, because they are Carrie Coon and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and not giving them showcase episodes constitutes a crime against humanity, but they really don’t register much during the slow burn of the early episodes.
David Thewlis is the china in the bull shop, the instigator in the sea of civility, and his brief time onscreen in both episodes represented the only time these episodes didn’t feel like an exercise in style. He’s really, really great.
None of this is bad, but little of it (aside from Thewlis and the Emmys-worthy cinematography) is good, either. And that matters when there are two trillion (approximately) options when it comes to small-screen entertainment. If I’ve tried to hammer home any point here in the past few months, it’s that episodes matter, especially if you want to watch Fargo over the next ten weeks one episode at a time. It should be an enjoyable experience that way, or if you binge it ten weeks from now once it’s all over. Those watching it the first way shouldn’t be disadvantaged over those who watch it the other way. That’s the “get off my lawn” hill upon which I’ll die as a critic, and that’s fine. If you think the opposite, you’re free and clear to ignore the old man who used to record Twin Peaks on carefully-labeled VHS tapes.
The beauty and curses of anthologies is that each can stand on their own and has to stand on their own. Even if all the pieces are in place, Noah Hawley and company are still faced with the monumental task of building something new and interesting that still feels familiar. It would have been far easier to just carry on with the cast from season one, and there’s little shame if a certain variation of the Fargo universe doesn’t quite click. I wouldn’t be shocked if people that loved the first two seasons don’t feel the same way about this one, but I’m a terrible prognosticator when it comes to these things. As someone who’s watched every episode despite decently deep reservations, all I can say is that it’s extremely unclear if I’ll make it to the end of this one unless future installments turn things around, and turn them around significantly.
If not, well, there will be plenty of screenshots to keep me entertained.