Make no mistake, we're currently in a new golden age of television.
Of course, this is mostly due to competition between streaming services like Netflix and cable networks, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Healthy competition has prodded cable to no longer stand by a mantra of "they'll watch it because there's nothing else to watch," and focus more on making consistently high quality shows. And god damn have they done it. So much so that it can be daunting for the average watcher to keep up with the nearly endless array of top-notch programming. From the grab bag of "American Horror Story," "The Walking Dead," "Nathan For You" and so on, how could you pick just one? Well, you don't have to, because I'm going to tell you; if you're going to watch any show this year, make it "Fargo."
FX's Coen Brothers produced anthology based around the eponymous North Dakota city and film of the same name, presents a different cast of criminal mishaps each season. In simplest term, it is a crime drama that paradoxically defies all conventions. It's hilarious without being comic. It's dark and brooding without falling into "True Detective"-esque malaise. It's complex yet, much like the mid-western caricatures it boasts, quite simple. It's graphic without being gruesome, deep without being preachy and it's everything you could ever ask from a mini series while featuring nothing you ever thought you wanted.
Now in its second season, the first set a high benchmark to be lived up to. Starring the incomparable Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, "Fargo" seamlessly laid out a dense atmosphere in the frozen North Dakotan wasteland. Freeman stars as Lester Nygaard, who can be best described as a pathetic, weak man, bogged down by a dead-end job, nagging wife and an infinitely more successful brother. Thornton portrays sadistic, soulless killer Lorne Malvo, who becomes Nygaard's sinister guardian angel through a happenstance meeting in a hospital waiting room; Freeman is in for a broken nose gifted by a life-long bully, Malvo from a car "accident." What ensues is a web of criminal misadventures fueled by Freeman's falling down a murderous rabbit hole.
While Malvo and Nygaard are the essential players, supported by an astounding cast featuring Bob Odenkirk ("Breaking Bad," "Better Call Saul"), Glenn Howerton ("It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia") and Colin Hanks ("Band of Brothers"), the real main character is the landscape itself. The bleak layout of the barren mid-west, complemented by its forcefully polite inhabitants creates an atmosphere rich with paradoxical nuances. Nygaard savagely murdering his wife with a hammer, for example, is effortlessly juxtaposed by him repeating "aw jeez, aw jeez" with each swing, to create a beautiful moment of television that dances a nearly invisible wire above tastelessness. This is not just an exemplary scene. Every scene, every monologue, every murder and every showdown comes with that same refreshing blend of wide-eyed, naive innocence and absolute barbaric abandon.
Season 2, now mid-way through its run, somehow meets and exceeds these expectations. Focusing on post-Vietnam era America, "Fargo" follows the Gerhardt family, a long-running criminal enterprise headed by matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart), and the unlikely Blumquist couple (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst) caught in the middle. A war between the Kansas City Mafia and The Gerhardts is imminent, as smooth-talking hitman Mike Milligan (a truly outstanding performance by Bokeem Woodbine) meddles between the two, and officer Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) attempts to break the case on a triple homicide. All components of the story tightly interlock into a big cluster of intrigue. The humor and self-aware wit still permeate every aspect of the show, resulting in a viewing experience that can touch on the harsh realities of crime, injustice, post-war hopelessness and Cold War sentiments while still having enough quirk to not be overbearing.
The long and short of it is there's simply nothing like "Fargo" on television, nor has there ever been and likely ever will be. It is the unique case of brilliant casting, direction and writing merging into something far beyond the sum of its parts. Drop what you're doing and binge watch now.