While watching TV in the past year and a half, no descriptive phrase has come to mind more than “prestige TV snake oil.” I recall the term—coined by by critic Al Shipley in a 2015 year-end roundup of his favorite (and least favorite) television shows—when sitting through some new buzzed-about hour-long drama, and considering the relationship between form and content. Do they logically complement each another? Is the show casting the patina of cerebrality and gravitas on a situation where that treatment is unnecessary? Is the show dressing itself up like the Real Thing when it’s really just run-of-the-mill?
Noah Hawley’s Fargo, whose third season premiered last night, has been divisive for these reasons. Its first installment premiered just following Nic Pizzolatto’s similarly cosmic procedural True Detective–a show which went from largely beloved at the beginning of its run to the subject of almost-universal derision by the end of its second. Fargo shares True Detective’s penchant for film noir worship and postmodernist crime-narrative writing, but Hawley’s show, much more than True Detective, has always been self-aware. (It’s also explicitly humorous, and much less hung up on Lynchian creep-out tactics.) Hawley emulates the affable, character-driven sensibility of its source material–the film Fargo–and clearly idolizes the larger oeuvre of the show’s producers, Joel and Ethan Coen, as a whole.
Unlike True Detective, too, Fargo doesn’t feel like a total boys’ club. Several of its most pivotal performances, both in terms of skill and agency in the narrative, have come from female actors (particularly Alison Tolman in its first, more by-the-numbers season, and Kirsten Dunst in its madcap, ‘70s-set second installment). The beginning of the third story in Hawley’s series confirms that although Hawley has a striking cinematographic eye and can write entertaining banter, Fargo’s success is still–as it really has always been–largely reliant on its casts. It may seem like a No-shit-Sherlock observation, but Hawley’s blaring pop music cues, slow-motion transitions, split-screen montages, and overactive, oblique camerawork are sometimes enough to distract one from the point. It’s the performances that pull us into the action, and create the show’s engaging throughline despite all the moving pieces.
The show’s most decadent tendencies are on display in the Hawley-directed season premiere, which begins with a prologue set in 1988 in Berlin unrelated to the show’s primary action. The opening shot pans out from the innards of a microphone, because—well, I couldn’t tell you. After this short, slightly ostentatious fable, we’re transported to the show’s Minnesota present-day home base, to meet this season’s versions of the show’s dominant character archetypes. There’s a shrewd policewoman, Midwestern-polite but with no tolerance for bullshit, played by Carrie Coon in the Francis…