Season four of Fargo arrives on FX Sunday, Sept. 27, more than five months after it was initially poised to premiere. Yet another TV series waylaid by the pandemic, all eyes are on how this critically adored show presents itself after 150-plus days on the sidelines.
The season looks at the mobster clans doing battle in Kansas City. While it takes place in 1950, season four touches on timely issues, including immigration and the African-American experience. The mob bosses swap their youngest sons in an effort to instill peace among the gangsters. Chris Rock plays the head of the African-American crime family who trades his son, Satchel, to the local Italian mafia and takes in the Italian boy.
Every producer is figuring out a Plan B or Plan C amidst pandemic challenges. Fargo creator Noah Hawley said he used the five-month delay to fine-tune a tricky season. “I appreciated having the extra time with a story that is this ambitious and intricately woven, with this many characters. To really just live with the material — to be able to put it aside and come back,” he said. “There’s an amount of reflection time I got this season that, as it turned out, is really good for the show, I think.”
John Landgraf, FX chairman, said Fargo had “no ending to an incredible season” when the show was put on hold. The two final episodes were shot simultaneously in Chicago with two directors and two crews, more than 500 people working at once, so shooting could wrap quickly. Production concluded Sept. 8.
Landgraf said Hawley “embodies the leadership and care for his cast and crew that every showrunner should emulate.”
A unique mix of crime drama and dark comedy, anthology series Fargo is inspired by the 1996 film by the Coen brothers. Season one, with Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks and Martin Freeman, was set in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2006. Thornton baddie Lorne arrives in Bemidji and stokes considerable havoc.
Season two had Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons and Ted Danson in the cast. Set in Minnesota and the Dakotas, it took place in 1979. A beautician and a butcher pair aim to cover up the wife’s hit-and-run, and it doesn’t go well.
Season three, set in Minnesota in 2010, had Ewan McGregor playing brothers, along with Carrie Coon and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. McGregor’s Ray attempts to steal a vintage stamp from his brother Emmit, a local parking lot guru. It premiered in 2017.
Fargo has racked up industry awards, including the Emmy for outstanding limited series in 2014, and critical praise. Season one scored a 97 on Rotten Tomatoes, season two a 100 and season three a 93. “Fargo consistently leverages the neophiliac advantages of an anthology series that resets with each season, and blends it with the equity of pre-exisiting IP from living within the Fargo shared universe (initially from the film, but now also derived from previous seasons),” Sarah Unger, senior VP of cultural insights and strategy at Civic Entertainment Group, said in an email. “It’s a smart approach that consistently renders it well-regarded with appreciative viewers.” (Civic Entertainment Group does business with FX parent Disney.)
Season four has 11 episodes, with a pair airing on premiere night. Fargo episodes turn up on Hulu the day after their FX premiere.
Hawley promises something big and bold. “I liked the idea of going back to the scale of season two,” he said earlier this year. “[Season three] was much smaller and more intimate and I liked the idea of doing something bigger. I just had this idea of the two families and the trading of sons and what that would lead to.”
That conceit was more a Hawley invention than a Midwestern mobster tradition. “It’s sort of the ultimate insurance policy on some level,” Hawley said of trading sons. “But it also allowed me to really look at assimilation. For a story about immigration and what it takes to become an American, now to do it in a much more intimate and personal way of, like, how does this child from one family assimilate into another family and who do they have to become to become part of that family?”
The cast also includes Jason Schwartzman, Salvatore Esposito and Ben Whishaw. Fargo is a bit of a departure for comedian Chris Rock. Hawley had him in mind right off the bat. “For whatever reason, when I came up with the story, I thought of him,” he said. “Before I even had a script, I called FX and said, I think I want to do another one. I told them about it and said I want to cast Chris Rock to play this character. They loved the idea.”
Hawley and Rock met before Hawley finished a script. Rock was a Fargo fan, and they had a deal. “I’m glad he didn’t have buyer’s remorse after he read it,” Hawley quipped.
The new season is shot in Chicago, the Windy City standing in for Kansas City. Nine of the 11 episodes were filmed before the pandemic struck, along with a handful of scenes from the final two episodes.
The Fargo gang reconvened in Chicago in late August for a 13-day shooting schedule. An actor with allergies and an office assistant with a persistent cough had the producers fretting, but no COVID emergencies occurred. “You have to make intense choices in terms of what it means for production, but we managed to persevere through it all,” said Hawley, who noted “lots of logistical heavy lifting” by the team.
He is not complaining about the long delay. “In the face of a global pandemic that killed so many people, I can’t say I’m aggravated,” Hawley said. “At the end of the day, it’s just television.”
Fargo is produced by MGM Television and FX Productions. Hawley and Warren Littlefield, former president of NBC Entertainment, executive produce the show with Joel & Ethan Coen. Back in the late ’90s, Littlefield considered a Fargo adaptation at NBC. It didn’t get beyond a script, though the project did at least reach the pilot stage some time later at CBS.
Timely Period Piece
Hawley said the story did not change drastically during the hiatus. Instead, he focused on the pacing. The first couple hours needed trims, he said, and he put them through the proverbial wood chipper. Two midseason episodes were stretched to three. “That allowed the story
to breathe and not overwhelm people in each hour,” he said.
Even before the battles for racial equality across the country heated up after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the new season of Fargo weighed in on the struggle of African-Americans in the United States, from the perspective of 1950s America. “There was certainly no way for me to predict when I started on this journey that we’d be having this conversation right now as the show comes out,” Hawley said. “My hope is that in addition to entertaining audiences, we’re telling them a real moral parable the way Fargo always does. The show has always been a conversation about America. We just happen to be having the American conversation in real time.”
Roger Catlin, a TV critic who runs the TV Eye blog, called the new season “a real departure”, in terms of both its mid-century setting and that it was shot in Chicago, not in frigid Calgary. Since its series premiere, Fargo has upped the ante for elite shows in the peak-TV era, he said. “For me, it’s one of the most interesting and innovative shows,” he said. “My fingers are crossed [season four] is up there with the other seasons.”
Legion of Fans
Hawley was the creator of offbeat superhero drama Legion on FX. His novels include Before the Fall, The Good Father and The Punch. Catlin calls Hawley “a singular voice” in the TV world.
Hawley is noncommittal about a fifth season of Fargo, but appears game for another go. “I certainly wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “The luxury of the show is, it allows me to jump around and tell a story from 2006 and 1979 and 1950. It allows me to think about not just new characters but a new location or a new decade, and what perspective can we get on America and the struggles we’re going through, and the things we do for money.”
With season four about to launch, Hawley is pleased Fargo can entertain a troubled nation and weigh in on the unrest around America in its own quirky way. He said people learn more from a good story than they do from a page of facts.
“All we can ever hope for as storytellers is to be part of the dialogue that’s going on in our country,” he said. “This conversation is long overdue.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.