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Chris Rock-led Fargo Season 4 is a waste of a good cast

  • "Viewed one way, the fourth season of FX’s Fargo can be seen as an experiment to test what happens when every element of a TV show is executed brilliantly … except the story," says Shane Ryan. "The reason is more complicated than you might think. In fits and starts, the new season drags the viewer in, approaching but never quite reaching the threshold at which art becomes truly compelling. One hundred years from now, we may have advanced sufficiently as a civilization to develop robot spouses that appear almost indistinguishable from our fellow humans and offer a shockingly close approximation to real romantic love. But just as those mechanical partners will ultimately fail to provide the same enduring spark as a human relationship to the lonely souls of the world, so does Fargo abandon its patient viewers in the uncanny valley that falls short of legitimately good television. But about those other elements: the praise is sincere. The cinematography stands out as particularly gorgeous, depicting early and mid-century Kansas City in muted tones ranging from black-and-white to variations on sepia, and the visual feast extends to the costumes (khaki has never looked so elegant), the buildings (ditto: bricks), and the weather (Fargo continues to shine in the medium of, um, snow). The performances are equally riveting, starting with the suddenly ubiquitous Jessie Buckley as the murderous nurse Oraetta Mayflower...Jason Schwartzman delivers as Josto Fadda, the heir to the Italian crime family in the city, somehow successfully combining the bewildered innocence he’s been delivering since the days of Max Fischer with the ruthlessness of a man who isn’t as weak as he first appears. Chris Rock is just fine as Loy Cannon, Fadda’s counterpart in the Black crime syndicate, and E’myri Crutchfield deserves special mention as Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, a smart, dignified moral center in a show that flutters and flails around her. And of course, Timothy Olyphant has become a sure thing in prestige TV; here, he plays a carrot-chomping, slightly smarmy, Mormon U.S. Marshal (if memory serves, he’s played a marshal before…) and he’s as reliably fun as ever...But we must arrive, ineluctably, at the story. My guess is that the first episode will be enough to turn off most viewers, so cluttered and nonsensical is the plot. The action begins with a brief history of gang wars in Kansas City, but unlike past seasons of Fargo, it doesn’t even bother nodding toward realism. Noah Hawley directs the first two episodes armed with the worst and most superficial instincts of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino, right down to the textual labeling of characters."


    • Fargo Season 4 channels substandard Quentin Tarantino and Tarantino imitators more than the Coen Brothers: "Every season of Fargo is a veritable monologuefest, but season four seems especially top-heavy, perhaps because it’s more doggedly prosaic and linear in its telling and more concerned—à la Boardwalk Empire and Sons of Anarchy—with who’s whacking whom and where and for what immediate purpose, not so much with the cosmological and philosophical aspects of life and crime that made seasons one and two of Hawley’s series so gripping," says Matt Zoller Seitz. He adds: "The rest of the cast ends up stranded in Fargo’s shallows—notably Chris Rock; Jason Schwartzman as young Italian gang boss Josto Fadda, who’s basically Michael Corleone by way of Fredo; and Salvatore Esposito as his brother Gaetano, an Old Country hothead who seems styled on Jon Polito’s gang boss, Johnny Caspar, from Miller’s Crossing. What’s the problem? Sometimes miscasting seems to be the main culprit: Rock and Schwartzman, especially, radiate modernity so strongly you wouldn’t be surprised if their characters took cell-phone calls in the middle of a scene. In other cases, Hawley and his fellow episode directors seem to have encouraged their actors to cling to the most obvious choices...At still other times, the dialogue hurls every other aspect of the production to the floor and pins it like those wrestlers who vexed Barton Fink. Anachronisms sink otherwise serviceable exchanges (the Twitter-certified warning 'slow your roll' shows up twice), and lit’ry word-clots fail to translate from page to screen. You can tell even Fargo recognizes that last problem by the way it keeps self-consciously trying to make light of it."
    • Fargo Season 4 is its bleakest season yet, and better off for it: "In examining the not-so-United States through a new prism — namely, racism and how our country’s original sin stains every facet of the American dream — Season 4 offers a grim twist on the series’ fundamental premise," says Ben Travers. "The violence and destruction brought on by greed and prejudice come from everywhere you look; there’s not one big bad, but many bad men. They’re not all evil, but they share the same hateful flaw, which not only warps their common goal of financial success, but casts an inescapable cloud of bigotry over the Kansas City sky. Meanwhile, our sole beacon of hope isn’t even old enough to make a living, let alone fight back; Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (played by E’myri Crutchfield) is just a 16-year-old girl, living in a mortuary, trying to do what’s right even when she’s punished for it."
    • Season 4 is a misfire: "In its first three seasons, Fargo found a surprising amount of elasticity within its constrained format. Each installment borrowed the tone of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 Midwestern noir, which places human greed against a setting of frigid climate and rigid propriety, to tell increasingly complicated crime stories," says Daniel D'Addario. "Until now, the show’s big swings — like the 1970s-set, UFO-bedecked second season, still the best — have proved creator Noah Hawley’s ability to find moments of lived reality amid chaos. The show has excelled in winding up resonant tales that still feel fundamentally of Fargo, even as they range further afield. Which makes the show’s fourth season, led by Chris Rock and written by Hawley as the most decisive move yet away from the tone and setting of the Coens’ film, a misfire. This season, depicting gang rivalry in 1950 Kansas City, sets out to tell a story more sweeping than any of its predecessors, and comes away overstuffed. The first nine episodes move without Hawley’s (or the Coens’) usual buoying confidence, as though the volume of incident packed into the season is compensating for an uncertainty about what the story here really is."
    • Fargo is full of riches—decadent set pieces and fascinating visual choices—but they ornament a sparse narrative: "The show’s many monologues are powerfully delivered, but are so extraneous it feels as if the show is ponderously spinning its wheels every time a new one starts," says Sonia Saraiya. "This season runs to eleven episodes, only nine of which were sent to critics (production was delayed by the pandemic). But even without knowing how it ends, I feel pretty certain that Fargo could stand to be a tad tighter and shorter, a little less self-involved. I got the impression the length was due at least in part to an effort to address more race-related themes in the show. According to the episode credits, Hawley brought in award-winning Atlanta writer Stefani Robinson to co-write one midseason episode, and Lee Edward Colston II, a former prison guard, to co-write 'East/West,' a particularly stunning episode that brings Whishaw’s lovely performance to the forefront. Yet Hawley is still the primary writer of every episode of a season that is ostensibly led by a black actor and at least in part narrated by a black teenager. The auteur model isn’t especially flexible. And maybe that’s really the issue with Fargo as a whole. The show was designed to be an anthology series derived from the tone and aesthetic of a well-loved movie; it can only bend so far outside of that purview."
    • Everything is much more muddled in Season 4, but watchability is never the issue: The first few episodes "are too droll by half and introduce a daunting number of characters and conflicts," says Hank Stuever. "(It’s why, I suspect, Sunday’s premiere offers two episodes, in hopes of moving more quickly to the better stuff.) Hawley and company are in no hurry to help us sort through them, but there is a strong design and structure being formed here, and patience is rewarded. This, too, harks back to the sort of television I was reviewing five and 10 years ago — heavily burdened, intentionally opaque, often hypermasculine and artistically grandiloquent. Hawley has more than proved that he’s a worthy foe of tropes and cliches, but here, his vision can at times feel detrimentally self-indulgent. What does work here, at times terrifically, is the complete shift in setting. Fargo opens with a vivid overview of the (fictionalized) history of mob rule and corruption in Kansas City, beginning with European Jews in the early 1900s, who were set upon and eventually overthrown by Irish immigrants, who, by mid-century, have been violently usurped by Italians. When these factions reached periods of uneasy truces, each mob boss would offer custody of his eldest son to the other mob boss — an honor swap meant to ensure a cease-fire. It becomes a relevant aspect to the story overall." Stuever adds: "Fargo provides plenty to look at, much of it forlornly beautiful. Listening, too, is a pleasure, as the dialogue drips eloquently off the tongues of even its most reprehensible characters."
    • Chris Rock holds his own in a rare dramatic role: "Loy’s speeches about who is allowed to achieve the American dream are tinged with the comedian’s familiar cadence from his previous onstage railing," says Danette Chavez. "But Rock comes to inhabit the role of Loy, someone whose ruthlessness and geniality inspire loyalty from his men in equal measure. He falters a bit in some of the quieter scenes, but when Loy visits his youngest son, Satchel (Rodney Jones), at the Fadda home, Rock shows some inspired character work, tenderly touching his son’s hair, which, along with his dietary needs, is hardly being looked after. Instead of racing to hit the highest dramatic register, he seeks out the notes in between."
    • It's hard for Fargo to escape male prestige tropes: "Fargo is tied up in the prestige tropes of six years ago, when the plight of menacing and tortured white men was widely accepted shorthand for seriousness of purpose and quality (although even then, those tropes were nearly exhausted)," says Willa Paskin. "The fourth season, delayed from April to September because of COVID-19, is aware that the series’ prior preoccupations alone will no longer cut it. The new season explicitly concerns race and takes as its central characters not only violent white men, but Black ones as well. But in trying to say something about the essential criminality of America, a country built on exploiting Black people, it is more clunkily and explicitly thematic than earlier seasons, and almost doubly fixated on generational machismo, such that its female characters never quite come off the sidelines."
    • Season 4 is not the same Fargo -- It’s a more ordinary show, a more mundanely plotted and “watchable” show: Season 4 comes "with less of the strangeness and arch surrealism that didn’t always work but generally kept you engaged with the stories. Its oddities felt original in earlier seasons; here, they tend toward caricature," says Mike Hale. "And cliché. The central story line, centered on a Black mob boss played by Chris Rock and Mafia co-captains played by Jason Schwartzman and Salvatore Esposito, is a gangster-film greatest-hits collection, though in a satirical mode. A Mafia don is accidentally felled by children playing (The Godfather); a bloody shootout takes place in a vintage train station (The Untouchables); a businesslike Italian struggles to control his hotheaded brother (The Godfather again); period gangsters are worn by their oversize hats (the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing). You make the connections, and wish you were rewatching the films. (Though there’s a Wizard of Oz reference that really does come out of left field.)"
    • Even a flawed season is better than anything else on TV: "Even as tension builds, it’s a treat to hear pungent dialogue, revel in artful cinematography and evocative music, and get caught up in a story that’s a bit too sprawling, but makes us wonder what happens next," says Kristi Turnquist.
    • Chris Rock may be the lead, but the same can be said of Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Buckley, E’myri Crutchfield and a number of other cast members: "This is the kind of share-the-wealth, ensemble-driven set piece where a dozen actors could be eligible for a Lead Performance nomination — or be in the supporting category," says Richard Roeper.
    • Fargo delves into the history of race in America and what it means to be "white": “You have these Italians facing off with these African American characters, and none of them are white in 1950," says Hawley. "These are not white people. The Irish are not white people. They’re not allowed in stores, either. They’re told not to apply for jobs also. And that changed, but it’s interesting to get to that moment, to go, ‘All right, well, what made them white?’ And why weren’t they, and who was, and who got to decide?”
    • Why Noah Hawley felt Chris Rock was perfect for Fargo: "For me casting is instinctual on some level," he says. "I thought of the story and I thought of him. There's the voice that Chris has and you think about him as an entrepreneur, as someone who started with very little, and who's built his own reality. Literally, through his command of language and the stage he built a career for himself. And then, he's aged, the way we've all aged, and has had some setbacks. If you watched his last (stand-up comedy) special, you know he's learned some hard lessons. He just filled the right space for me. Luckily it wasn't a hard conversation. I called FX from the set of Lucy and said, "Here's the basic idea and I want to cast Chris Rock." They got really excited about it. Chris came to the set two weeks later and I pitched him the thing and luckily he was a Fargo enthusiast and he was in. There wasn't a script for six more months. I've never done it that way before. There's always been a script first. Obviously there are a lot of stories in this season that aren't my story. I have my own immigrant story and my own American story, but I don't claim to think it represents everybody's stories. So it's very important to have partners and writers and directors that reflected the experiences of the characters in the story."
    • Chris Rock says he's basically playing his grandfather on Fargo: "I mean, I like comedy that’s rooted anyway," says Rock of taking on a rare dramatic role. "I love Steve Martin, but I’ve never been the wild and crazy, wacky guy. I kinda like to have a real bottom to any comedy I do, anyway. The character works for me because I’m basically playing my grandfather. I was born in South Carolina, my parents were born in South Carolina, my grandparents. So this guy is kinda the same age as my grandfather. My grandfather wasn’t a mob boss, but he was a preacher, he was a public figure. My father had nine brothers, five sisters. Probably 70% (of them were) in jail, so I’ve been around that stuff a lot. I sent my mother a picture of my character with the hair and everything and she’s ready to cry. She said: ‘You look like your grandfather.’"

    TOPICS: Chris Rock, FX, Fargo, Ben Whishaw, E’myri Crutchfield, Jason Schwartzman, Jessie Buckley, Noah Hawley, Salvatore Esposito