Anthology shows are the new cool kid on the block, the ‘in thing’ on American television.
Over the past few years, American Horror Story, Scream Queens and Fargo have all adopted the format. Each season follows a new set of characters with a new story, and little to no connective tissue between previous or future series.
British TV hasn’t fully embraced the format yet, apart from the excellent Black Mirror and Inside No. 9, so it’s a relief that you can tune in to the fantastic second season of Fargo every Monday on Channel 4. There’s nothing else like it on television – an awful cliché – but the show is what it is: an insanely funny, fucked up crime drama exploring the darker side of human nature. It’s the furthest thing imaginable from the pretentious, DIY detective period dramas, neutered to cater for the serial Ofcom complainer, that ITV love so much.
1979. The shit hits the fan when Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) makes a complete balls up of blackmailing a judge over some typewriters, and ends up killing her, a cook, and a waitress at The Waffle Hut before ending up through a car windshield. The driver, Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst) continues home with the body on the bonnet, forcing her and husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) to cover up the incident. It forces the couple to confront their differences – Ed wants a family, but Peggy just wants to be the ‘best her’ she can be.
Minnesota State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and his father-in-law Sheriff Hank (Ted Danson) investigate what happened at The Waffle Hut, bringing them into conflict with the Gerhardt cartel and the Kansas City Mob, led by Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) and the Kitchen brothers (Todd and Brad Mann). Lou and his family also have to contend with his wife Betsy’s (Cristin Milioti) cancer.
Meanwhile, the Gerhardts brace themselves for war with the Kansas City Mob and try to deal with familial conflicts. The ailing health of patriarch Otto leads to a leadership vacuum, with his wife Floyd (Jean Smart) and eldest son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) vying to take over. The Gerhardts definitely aren’t on each other’s Christmas card lists this year.
Amid the main story arc, there are strong subplots and fantastic character moments. Despite the violent subject matter, Fargo manages to be funny, often hilarious. Lou dropping into the butcher’s for bacon, interrupting Ed feeding the deceased Rye Gerhardt through a mincer and narrowly missing one of the dead man’s appendages rolling around the shop floor is one of the show’s most darkly humorous scenes. And Dodd Gerhardt trying to hold a conversation with an earless corpse highlights his callousness – as well as what a dumb shit he is.
The show’s black humour adds depth, as does its style. Fargo is full of shots of snowy landscapes, forestry, and the occasional lonely car, all of which add to the story and intensify the themes of bleakness (Betsy’s cancer), emptiness (the Gerhardts’ family relationships), hopelessness (Ed and Peggy escaping without suffering the consequences of their actions), and inevitability (the gang war between the Gerhardts and Kansas City). The Minnesota of Fargo is an anti-Lapland, where jolly old Saint Nick would be a gun-toting redneck and Rudolph’s shiny nose would only make him an unmissable target.
Splitscreens are used ingeniously to juxtapose characters, their actions, their motivations, and the situations in which they find themselves. They highlight the similarities and differences of each character, as well as intensify pacing and scene transitions. On the right of the screen the Blomquists could be enjoying a faux happy meal, and on the left Dodd Gerhardt could be taking a crap. Talk about dramatic tension.
At the halfway point, it’s clear that season two of Fargo has escaped the shadow of its predecessor by telling an entirely new story while still keeping to its strengths. As the tension rises between the Gerhardts and the Kansas City Mob, with the Blomquists stuck in the middle, before long the snow of Minnesota will be soaked with claret.
Fargo works as a black comedy, a crime show and a drama – in fact, it’s all of that and more.