Nothing says “important television” like a 20-minute prologue – and the fourth season of Fargo (Channel 4) has a good one. Narrated in the form of a school report by a teenage girl, Ethelrida, it tells the story of Kansas City, Missouri, in the early 20th century. Warring groups of immigrants control the criminal underworld. As the decades pass, the identities of the newcomers change, but a longstanding tradition remains the same: the youngest son of one family is swapped for the youngest son of the other. The idea is that, through mutual sacrifice, each gang might reach an understanding that would preclude the need for violence. The reality is that it is just as much a part of the cycle as the rest of it – and the exchange has always ended in betrayal and bloodshed.
For some reason, this has never stopped the practice. By 1950, the opposing factions are Italian and black, with remnants of the Irish and Jewish families that came before them lingering in the ranks. Chris Rock is Loy Cannon, while his rival is Josto Fadda, played by Jason Schwartzman, the son and heir of the big boss, Donatella. Neither group has much time for the other, but they are in the truce stage of affairs, swapping youngest sons, waiting to see who will be the first to crack or if the calm will continue.
It won’t. This is Fargo, after all, a show based loosely on the world cooked up in the Coen brothers’ 1996 film, in which calamity follows calamity into disaster. There is a deep mistrust on both sides and everyone is anticipating the inevitable war. Josto doesn’t trust Loy. Loy sees a world beyond the Italians and has big plans for the future in Kansas City. The fuse may not have been lit, but much of this opening episode is about striking the match. There is tension in the air. Everything appears as if it is about to go wrong.
It is well-made television. It looks the business and no doubt cost a lot of money to produce. It is built on excellent performances, although not necessarily in the obvious places. Ben Whishaw has a small part, so far, as Rabbi Milligan, a straggler from the Irish days who now runs with the Italians; he looks sure to shine. Jessie Buckley is Miss Mayflower, a racist nurse with a big vocabulary, a solid walk and plenty of secrets. Glynn Turman is Doctor Senator, a steady hand who goes to the bank with Loy to pitch their big money-making idea: the credit card.
This is the US in 1950 and so discrimination is everywhere, particularly in a bank that requires Doc and Loy to use separate entrances, so their pitch isn’t quite the hit it should be. Elsewhere, when one of the Italians is injured, they hurry to hospital, only to be told to use a public hospital down the road, more suitable for their kind. This season’s theme appears to be that the US is built on immigrants and that it has treated them terribly. In her voiceover, Ethelrida questions the very idea of assimilation. “If America is a nation of immigrants, then how does one become American?”
This season of Fargo is not exactly light of touch, then. Too often, it assumes that heavy-handedness is a stand-in for profundity. Its previous oddness always seemed deliberate, but this time it seems clumsy, as if it hasn’t found its feet. “Where you from? Dublin, Italy?” asks Loy of Rabbi Milligan, which the academic Ethelrida and verbose Miss Mayflower would surely dismiss as clunky writing. I am not convinced of Rock or Schwartzman yet, either; from their previous work, both leave me anticipating a leap to slapstick. There is a dramatic scene that ends in an extended fart joke, which felt a little premature, like proposing before the first date. A fart joke should be earned, or at least have the decency to wait until episode three.
However, it is early days. Buckley is intriguing as the Minnesotan nurse who may yet tie it all together; she deserves an Emmy for her services to accents (although she may have to see off Kate Winslet’s Pennsylvanian drawl in Mare of Easttown). Ethelrida and her family, who run the funeral home, find themselves hovering around the centre of the action, owing to “money troubles” that Loy might be able to solve. It is certainly a showy show – theatrical and expensive-looking, stuffed with Hollywood stars – but there is a lot of that about at the moment and this does little to distinguish itself. Given that Fargo has always stood out, it is strange that it seems to be settling for blending in.