I’m not sure “Fargo” will ever again reach the stunning originality and the perfectly pitched dark comedy of its second season, the one with Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Jean Smart. Except for season four with Chris Rock, which fell apart by the end, the FX anthology series has been consistently enjoyable and smart — but that second tale, in which an accident spirals into a chain of violent events, as is wont to happen on “Fargo,” was above and beyond.
That said, the new season five of “Fargo,” Noah Hawley’s twisty and endlessly cynical riff on the Coen Brothers movie, promises to be an entertaining, stylishly filmed one. It’s not going to be peak “Fargo,” at least based on the six (of 10) episodes made available for review, but it features a few dynamic performances, a nicely focused story line, some compelling action, and a turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh that is so excessive you’ll wonder if her acting tutor is Nicolas Cage. She is as over-the-top as Jon Hamm is low key, although they both play sociopaths who like to flex their power as they reach for more power. “Fargo” is nothing without its sociopaths.
Hamm and Leigh are the two poles of the story, with Juno Temple’s Dot Lyon caught between them. The season is set in 2019, and Dot, a meek mother of one, gets caught in a school meeting that turns aggressive. She Tasers a cop in the melee, which leads to her being arrested and fingerprinted, which ultimately blows the cover she has been cultivating for years. She is peacefully married to Wayne (David Rysdahl) — Leigh’s Lorraine Lyon is her mother-in-law — but Hamm’s Sheriff Roy Tillman has been trying to find her for a long time, hoping to reclaim his property — her. Once he discovers where Dot is, he sends his goons after her, but she is wily and wild, despite the polite manner that is indigenous to the region and that provides the show with a lot of comedy, and she escapes. She only seems guileless.
Temple, best known for “Ted Lasso,” is a lot of fun to watch, pulling the plot forward like a superhero or Mighty Mouse but trying to be nice the whole time, even to those who despise her, notably Lorraine, who thinks Dot is after the Lyon wealth. It’s a gag that continues to deliver on the show, this kind of Midwestern default to “fine and dandy,” the collision of artlessness and evil, and it’s one of the direct links to the original movie. At one point, as Lorraine sneers at and threatens her, Dot issues a threat that lets Lorraine know in no uncertain terms that she is a more formidable opponent than Lorraine realizes. Dot has tried to erase and forget her past life — like Erin in Netflix’s “Who Is Erin Carter?” — but it’s still lurking in her and at her disposal. I probably wouldn’t have thought of Temple, a Brit, for this role, but it was a choice piece of casting.
Likewise, it’s satisfying seeing Hamm as a full-on bad guy — one who is worlds more pernicious than his chilly Don Draper from “Mad Men.” Tillman is a sheriff, but he is also a preacher and the boss of a militia eager to do his bidding. Calm, but with eyes that are laser-sharp with hatred, he does what he wants regardless of the law, and he laughs in the face of those cops who play by the rules. He is a far-right Trump supporter — remember, this is 2019 — and he is a misogynist who uses the Bible to support his tyranny and his dislikes. He’s not morally complex, like TV’s celebrated antiheroes such as Draper; he is morally offensive.
The fifth season of “Fargo” is true to the microcosmic nature of the series, where the world of the Midwest seems to exist in its own special dimension; but it’s also the timeliest season so far, gesturing out to the news of the day that continues to play out in American courthouses. Tillman is an autocrat, a smirking but insecure ruler who cannot tolerate disagreement and who sneers at anyone, including his son, Gator (Joe Keery), who fails to deliver for him. Dot is running from Tillman and her past, trying hard to preserve the peaceful life she has created and to protect the daughter she adores. But she is also running as hard and as fast as she can from a way of life.
There are, of course, some well-meaning cops in the mix, most notably Richa Moorjani (“Never Have I Ever”), who is just right as Minnesota Police Deputy Indira Olmstead. She’s the normie among all the season’s oversized characters, quietly charming and ordinary — but, like Marge in the “Fargo” movie, nobody’s fool. While the cast is a bit smaller than it has been in other seasons, there are other amusing and even endearing characters this season, including Indira’s golf-obsessed husband, who is nearly as oppressively sexist as Tillman. As the unaware Wayne, Rysdahl becomes more interesting as his wife’s double-life takes its toll, and Dave Foley is a smarmy treat as Lorraine’s enforcer. He’s her puppet, or is he? In the world of “Fargo,” agendas can be hidden quite effectively.
Starring: Jon Hamm, Juno Temple, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Rysdahl, Lamorne Morris, Dave Foley, Richa Moorjani, Joe Keery, Sam Spruell, Lukas Gage
On: FX and Hulu. Premieres Nov. 21 at 10 p.m. on FX, the next day on Hulu.