It's good to have "Fargo" back at long last.
The fourth season of FX's anthology series, based on the 1996 Coen brothers film, has been a long time coming, even before the COVID-19 pandemic caused production to shut down in March. Creator, executive producer, writer and sometime director Noah Hawley last brought us his version of crime, calamity and the Midwest in 2017, in a season that starred Ewan McGregor as twin brothers. Given the long wait for Season 4, it's almost fitting that the episodes themselves are on the slow side.
Starring Chris Rock and set in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1950, Season 4 of "Fargo" opens Sept. 27 (9 EDT/PDT, moving to 10 EDT/PDT on Oct. 4, ★★★ out of four). Further afield from the other seasons (geographically and in time), this installment tackles racism and tribalism, and asks questions about how far anyone will go to help family, or to hurt them. With a strong point of view, impeccable scenery and sharp acting (as usual), it's easy to forgive a slow start.
As in past seasons, the new "Fargo" follows a group of people loosely linked by blood and crime. Through the perspective of Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield) – an extraordinarily clever Black 16-year-old on the periphery of the action – the history of organized crime in early 20th-century Kansas City unfolds: First came the Jews, then the Irish, then the Italian, and at the outset of the season, a Black family, led by Rock's Loy Cannon, is making a bid to take over the city.
Cannon is an even-keeled, respected elder statesman, as crime bosses go, with a slash of gray in his hair and words of wisdom for every youth he encounters. His foil is the hot-tempered Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman), the oldest son of the Mafia boss and a peevish man who struggles to maintain power in his own family. Circling the feuding mobsters are two entirely different criminal elements: poison-happy Nurse Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley, adding the series' familiar Minnesota accent), and Ethelrida's bank-robbing Aunt Zelmare (Karen Aldridge) and her fellow prison escapee Swanee (Kelsey Asbille).
The first two episodes slowly introduce its large cast of characters and explain the history behind the criminal enterprises that are the main thrust of the plot. In Episode 2, we meet Detective Odis Weff (Jack Huston), a compulsive, corrupt cop on the Faddas' payroll. But the season doesn't truly coalesce until Episode 3, when Timothy Olyphant arrives as boisterous U.S. Marshal Dick ‘Deafy’ Wickware (surely a delight for any "Justified" fan), adding more of the criminals vs. cops dynamic that makes "Fargo" tick.
Quirky cops, absurdly spelled names and Oraetta's Minnesota accent aren't the only holdovers from earlier "Fargo" seasons. The new season also balances humor with thrills, as one armed robbery unfolds amid one robber's gastrointestinal distress (which is mostly just distressing for the viewer).
The Missouri landscape has no snowdrifts,, but "Fargo" wouldn't be "Fargo" without just a little wintry mix. A light dusting of powdered snow over brown grass or a gray sludge piled around street drains is the scenery here, a nod to the seedy undercurrent of crime in the city.
Hawley hits the themes of the season hard – maybe a little too hard. The first episode explicitly spells out the idea that the American Dream is closed to non-white communities. Crime isn't just born out of a need for money, but from a desire for power and respect in a world that offers nothing to people deemed lesser. That fact spurs mob wars, and bloodshed, more than any one criminal in the Fadda or Cannon families.
Rock is the top-billed star, but he has the most understated, subtle performance. For once, the comedian known for outrageous specials and films is playing the straight man. Playing Loy gives him gravitas, even as his calm demeanor at times fades into background against the wild characters Hawley draws for the absurdist drama. It's easy to get caught up in Oreatta – loud, violent and disrespectful of social norms – or the devoutly Mormon Deafy, proselytizing every time he's offered a coffee.
It would be ideal if the long-awaited season were the best, most ambitious installment in the award-winning anthology series. Although smart and beautiful, there is something left wanting in the new episodes – an inciting murder that grabs you in the first episode – perhaps because the previous seasons of "Fargo" are just that breathtaking.
But an average season of "Fargo" is better than the best season of many other series. If it's less worth the long wait, "Fargo" is at least very welcome to the party now that it's finally arrived.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Fargo' Season 4 review: Chris Rock leads slow-but-steady season on FX