Three years after its last edition, “Fargo” returns with Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman in key against-type roles, and an enticing mob story with the texture of a graphic novel. Yet it unfolds at such a languid, almost hypnotic pace as to blunt its impact, getting distracted by an abundance of oddball characters that don’t overtly do much to advance the central plot.
The FX series was one of many delayed by coronavirus, having completed nine of its 11 episodes before the pandemic shut down production. Series creator Noah Hawley and his team were able to resume filming, although those final episodes haven’t been seen, so even critics don’t know if the big build-up actually pays off in a satisfying manner.
As is, the new “Fargo” owes a debt to every Mafia movie ever made, but perhaps foremost to the graphic-novel-turned-2002-movie “Road to Perdition,” at least in the look and tone. A key dramatic device also brings to mind Jack Kirby’s epic “Fourth World” comic books of the 1970s: Leaders of warring factions (and in that case, planets) swapping sons in order to maintain an uneasy truce between them.
The premiere establishes that history, and indeed the entire arc of American organized crime as it pertains to immigrants, with the rise of Jewish, Irish and Italian syndicates — whoever was “next off the boat,” it’s noted. These groups warily interact with each other, before Black mobsters enter the scene when the story begins in Kansas City in 1950, with Rock’s Loy Cannon as their boss. (Lest anyone have forgotten after the long layoff, “Fargo,” the title, is really just a state of mind, not the town referred to in the original Coen brothers movie.)
“What does history tell us? Peace don’t last for long,” the narration notes at the outset, setting an ominous tone for virtually everything that follows.
Cannon trades his son with the rival Italian mob, run by Schwartzman’s slightly fidgety Josto Fadda, himself the product of an earlier heir swap. Yet Fadda has his own internal troubles, with his ruthless brother Gaetano (“Gomorrah’s” Salvatore Esposito) having come over from the old country and itching for a fight.
“Fargo” provides an assortment of lovingly constructed shots, artful split screens and eccentric characters, including Timothy Olyphant (not far from his “Justified” days) as a philosophical lawman who objects to strong language; Jessie Buckley as a nurse whose stiff outward demeanor doesn’t tell the whole story; and Ben Whishaw — who really steals the show — as an Irishman raised by the Italians, who becomes the world-weary chaperone of Cannon’s kid.
Rock and Schwartzman sink their teeth into these serious dramatic roles, and there’s still plenty of the series’ trademark quirkiness, such as naming one of Loy’s lieutenants Doctor Senator (played by the ever-reliable Glynn Turman).
Too often, though, the narrative moves at a crawl, filled with long conversations that carry the impending threat of violence. It’s fine if you’re there just to luxuriate in the atmosphere (which includes a glorious black-and-white episode later in the run), and a little frustrating if you’d prefer a bit more urgency about where all these roads lead and intersect.
Given the spotty history of translating movies to TV, the first season of “Fargo” was a minor miracle — capturing the film’s peculiar rhythms — and the second was almost equally impressive. The third, however, featuring Ewan McGregor in a dual role, slipped from that creative plateau, and the fourth ranks right around that line, well below the show’s apex.
That isn’t bad company, but in the “Fargo” pecking order, it’s closer to the runt of the litter than the top dog.