It may have seemed an impossible task to get the feel of the singular Cohen Brothers classic after which it is named, but Noah Hawley not only achieved that with “Fargo” (FX, 10 p.m.) in its first season, he has been able to replicate it ever since.
The third season that starts tonight may have been even trickier, since he was also writing the just completed mindblower “Legion” that just wrapped up.
The latest version of TV’s most entertaining hour is set in 2010 but still has a retro feel, owing possibly to the imaginary Minnesota in which it’s set.
As in past seasons, the basic elements are here: low level Midwestern businessmen who are tempted to do one crime that goes terribly wrong. Along the way, they inadvertently involve murderous regional syndicates and attract the attention of unusually upstanding local law enforcement. There are family entanglements on both sides, a load of eccentric characters, and, in the case of season three at least, a lot of snow.
Just as big a bonus is the involvement of a lot of top flight acting talent, often rare to television.
That comes in the form of Ewan McGregor, who plays the successful “Parking Lot King of Minnesota” who has inadvertently gotten involved with a fearsome foreign investor — David Thewlis (Harry Potter’s Remus Lupin) and his even scarier henchmen. The Parking Lot King also has a less successful brother — also played by McGregor! — a compromised, balding probation officer who lives with one of his more comely cons — Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whom you’ve loved in “Braindead” and “Mercy Street.” She’s got her own criminal ambitions and odd methods. And a great character name, Nikki Swango.
The name of the police chief looking into all this is Gloria Burgle. She’s played by Carrie Coon, who is just as loved for her standout role in “The Leftovers,” which confusingly is just starting its third season as well.
Also in the cast are the Parking Lot King’s first lieutenant, Michael Stuhlbarg, who was so good as Arnold Rothstein in “Boardwalk Empire,” and seems built for “Fargo,” and another familiar face from “Boardwalk Empire,” Shea Whigham, who plays the incoming new sheriff in charge.
At immediate issue is a rare stamp that the successful brother inherited that the less successful brother feels he is owed. It spirals out quickly from there.
As with all of Hawley’s television, the look is striking (he also directed episode one) and the unexpected choice of music impeccable. And the prospects of another great season are high.
The cast was only in its first week of production when he met with reporters at the TV Critics Association winter press tour in January (they’re apparently still shooting the season now).
“There’s lots to play with here, which is great,” said McGregor. But more than playing two people, “the challenge is to try and find first of all, to master that accent, which is really very, very difficult. It’s a very strange accent to lock into. I don’t know if it’s harder or not. As a non American, I sort of wish that I was coming at it from an American accent as opposed to from a Scottish one. It’s the hardest accent I’ve ever done. And I did Dutch once.”
As for playing two parts in the movie, McGregor said, “I’ve done it it twice before. I did it in a movie called ‘The Island,’ a Michael Bay movie where I played a clone of somebody, and then there were some scenes where the clone met his clone the guy he is cloned from. And then I made a film with Rodrigo Garcia called ‘Last Days in the Desert’ where I played Jesus and the Devil, and I was also in scenes with myself, if you like. I’m very experienced at playing with myself.”
Coon said of her sheriff character, “She really represents a kind of small town aesthetic, a sense of community that she feels has been eroded by forces outside of herself. And her personal life is also falling apart. I think that’s the thing that distinguishes her from characters in previous seasons that sort of had this female sheriff idea. Her personal life is kind of eroding, and she’s trying to hang on to who she is inside of that happening in a microcosm and also in the macrocosm in the world that she’s policing.”
By contrast, Winstead described her character as “incredibly smart and savvy and with the capacity to be conniving…but I think she’s kind of she has a heart.”
She said Hawley “likes all the characters to be able to feel like they could be a villain at any given moment or a hero at any given moment. And I think Nikki very much falls in between those two categories, where, even as I’m reading it, especially in the first couple episodes, I really didn’t know what direction she was going to go in as far as that goes because she definitely has a history and a past and a bit of a dark side to her.
“But I’m still figuring her out, to be honest. It’s very new.”