No show has brought me more pleasure this year than FX's "Fargo," a TV show that has absolutely no right to work as well as it does. Turning a celebrated theatrical movie made by esteemed directors into a series is a ticklish proposition, and it fails ("Minority Report," "12 Monkeys") far more than it succeeds ("M*A*S*H"). But here show creator Noah Hawley has succeeded madly, with an anthology drama that is funny, dark, absurdist, cinematic, suspenseful, existential, morally shaded, history-minded, tightly plotted, and a hundred other affirmative epithets.
The second season, with its self-standing plot set in 1979, has been even better than the very fine season one, which won the Emmy for best miniseries. Now that Hawley and company have moved off the story line of the 1996 Coen brothers movie, they've been liberated and able to play out their own ideas from start to finish (Monday night at 10). The cast has been sprawling and wonderful, from the quiet nobility of Patrick Wilson and Ted Danson and the malignant ignorance of Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst to the cold-hearted cruelty of Jean Smart and Jeffrey Donovan. Just when you think the "Fargo" cast is too good to be true, another actor turns up — Brad Garrett, Bokeem Woodbine, Nick Offerman, Cristin Milioti — and hits it out of the park.
So here's the problem. Yes, the show does moderately well in the ratings for FX, and, given its first-season showing at the Emmys, it is a prestige product. It has already been renewed for season three, so, unlike most of the characters, it's not in danger of getting the ax. But I also want the people in my life to see "Fargo," since it gives me so much pleasure. Often, too often, friends say they don't want to watch because it's too violent. Why does "Fargo" need to be so violent? Why, they wonder, would I want to watch a mild-mannered butcher — Plemons's Ed Blumquist — hack up a body and grind down the bones in the back of Bud's Meats while a defiant finger casually rolls across the floor?
I admit, I have blocked my eyes with my (fully fingered) hand while watching some of the artful violence that erupts in "Fargo." Whenever Billy Bob Thornton's Malvo strangled people in season one, for example, my stomach twitched. Those scenes, like every scene in the show, were shot — from the sly, precise camera angles to the realism of the props — to be as gross as possible. I'm not sure "Fargo" is more violent than "Game of Thrones," but it sometimes seems that way, since it's not steeped in fantasy. But still, I've never felt that the violence was there only to grab attention or pander to video-game tastes. It's an integral and critical part of the power and meaning of the show.
One reason I submit to the blood and gore this season is linked to the way "Fargo" sets out to be a quintessentially American story, complete with a visit from the campaigning Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell). On the one hand, the show puts forward a culture of simple-mannered Midwestern folk who appear to be nice and polite. On the other hand, they live in a world where, no matter how innocent, you can nonetheless get pulled into situations involving guns. You know the deal too well: This country is ridden with violence. The clash of innocence and blood is too common. For a show to effectively capture our national temperament, to be a true portrait, the viewer has to be forced to block his or her eyes every now and then.
Wilson's Lou Solverson served in Vietnam, and yet he's returned to a country suffering from its own divisions and horrors. Wilson is extraordinary, the sadness written into the worry lines of his face. He, along with Danson and Milioti, are the heart of the story, the people who make the violence seem even more horrible because they are so honest and true. They're not obviously heroic — that was one of the defining qualities of the movie "Fargo," the way the good guys were so modest. They're kind people who are also weary and a little joyless, positive but not bright-eyed.
"Fargo" also takes on the theme of latent aggression, the way primitive feelings of self-protection and anger can be stoked in otherwise peaceful souls. We saw it last season with Martin Freeman's Lester Nygaard, and we see it this season with the Blumquists, who get pulled into the falling-domino violence that culminated last week in the anticipated Massacre at Sioux Falls. Hawley, like the Coens before him, is suggesting that anyone is capable of violence, regardless of moral orientation. You want to root for the ordinary, gracious characters of "Fargo" who've been sucked into criminal behavior against their will — but then you can't root for them, because at a certain point they've crossed over into culpability. When pushed, they've chosen fight over flight.
That view of human nature and self-interest, of the dark potential that lurks within us, makes the violence in "Fargo" an interesting and challenging experience for the viewer, and not just a meaninglessly entertaining barrage of ugliness. The show is styled as a fake true-crime story, or an old school western, with Lou's sheriff-like aspect set up against the Native American enforcer Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon). But ultimately, there's nothing fake or old school about its impact on the viewer.