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"Fargo" the television series, back for a third season starting this week on FX, has always been a careful study of resentment -- long-simmering and then suddenly flung out in the open, dangerous and nasty and heading for a brutal collision with anything resembling Minnesota nice.
That frisson (driving both the series from show creator Noah Hawley and the 1996 Coen Brothers movie) is balanced by a steadying moral center, this season in the form of Carrie Coon's small town police chief Gloria Burgle. As with her other spiritual descendants of Marge Gunderson (embodied by Allison Tolman in Season 1, Patrick Wilson in Season 2), she is even-keeled. Salt-of-the-earth. Diligent. Without ego. Unassuming but quietly intelligent. She will get us through what is shaping up to be yet another long, snowy walk down the road to nihilism.
Over three seasons, the show has taken a modified anthology approach. The year changes, as do the characters. But the setting, the overriding mood and look and vibe, those remain the same. That's either reassuring or repetitive and it is too early in the season to gauge just yet.
The year is 2010, with the bruising effects of the '08 financial crash still on the mind. The story springs from unresolved tension between two brothers, each of whom have taken different paths in life. Both are played by Ewan McGregor -- for no apparent reason besides the thrill of seeing an actor in dual roles -- costumed in distinctive looks.
Wearing the curly pseudo-mullet is Emmit Stussy, the brother who leveraged an inherited stamp collection into a minor real estate empire. From all outward appearances, he's the model of success -- as opposed to Ray Stussy, the brother with long disheveled locks, a receding hairline and a mustache. A parole officer by day, Ray's unhappily mediocre existence comes with a serving of shaky ethics. His inheritance all those years back? A red sports car, now decades old and rusting and -- as both he and his brother well know -- of considerably lesser value than that stamp collection that served as Emmit's seed money. Cue the resentment and the violent crimes, both baroque and banal, that will follow.
Resentment, of the hot, boiling, poisonous kind, can drive people to behave in ways that go against their own benefit but provide instant gratification. You could, if you were so inclined, look at "Fargo" and its inhabitants as metaphor for the ways resentment in its many forms (legitimate and its opposite) has led us to where we are as a country today.
Gorgeously cinematic and stocked with indelible performances, there something about the series that I resist. Small town life in the upper Midwest (and all its attendant eccentricities) is carefully held up as something more authentic than what you get elsewhere. Law enforcement is neither corrupt nor dispensed with any sort of unconscious biases; even more so, it is the grounding force that keeps the world from spinning off into perpetual chaos. That's a thematic choice, and one that doesn't feel fully engaged with how life is lived.
But more to the point, the show leaves a type of aftertaste that can feel something like mockery. One constant in Hawley's approach as a showrunner is his ability to create the sort of wonderfully showy and outsized roles for actors that almost make you forget just how empty the series can be. There is something about such a naturalistic show going for a sardonic something extra in the way violence is filmed (and scored) that has a way of undercutting much of emotional honesty and depth that exists in "Fargo's" stories.
But then you see someone like British actor David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in the "Harry Potter" films) show up as an emissary for a shady crime syndicate and, for a moment, all is forgiven as he calmly threatens Emmit that he and his partners "have taken the past year to study your business -- properties, cash flows -- so we can better disguise our activities." A boot to the neck, achieved with efficient understatement.
A different sort of understatement is driving Coon's police chief, and it is fitting that Hawley would cast her here -- Gloria Burgle ticks off so many of Coon's talents as an actor, even if she isn't given much to do at the outset.
"Fargo" as a series may be a sly comedy, but it has ambitions -- pretensions? -- that go far beyond that. Are we meant to take these characters and their troubles seriously? Yes and no. Which may be why I continue to watch the show but can never fully reconcile myself to it.