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Humor and violence collide in what might be the strongest season of 'Fargo' yet


This is FRESH AIR. Every two years for a decade now, on average, writer-producer Noah Hawley has created new TV miniseries editions of "Fargo" inspired by the 1996 Coen brothers movie. Each edition has run for a single season on FX featuring an entirely new cast, setting, and storyline. The new 10-episode Season 5 of "Fargo" begins tomorrow on FX with a doubleheader premiere then runs weekly. Episodes are then available the next day on Hulu. This season stars Juno Temple from "Ted Lasso" and Jon Hamm from "Mad Men" and "The Morning Show." Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: When the first edition of Noah Hawley's version of "Fargo" was announced back in 2014, I was intensely skeptical. First, I'd loved the movie "Fargo" and wasn't sure its spirit could be recaptured. Second, I'd never even heard of Noah Hawley, who had been a writer on the TV series "Bones." So even if bringing "Fargo" to television was a possibility, I didn't have any faith that he was the right person to do it. I couldn't have been more wrong and for more times in a row than I ever dreamed.

That first "Fargo," starring Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, was brilliant, hilarious, dark and intoxicatingly unpredictable. It wasn't a retelling of the movie, just a faithful exploration and echo of its spirit. And after sticking that landing, Hawley doubled down and did it again and again and again. He kept coming up with new iterations of "Fargo," each separate from the rest like an umbrella anthology series. I've loved them all, and this is my favorite yet.

Noah Hawley wrote or co-wrote all 10 episodes and directed many of them. Critics were provided the first six, which are enough for me to proclaim "Fargo" one of the very best TV offerings of the year. Juno Temple, so sparkly and effervescent in "Ted Lasso," stars as a completely different character here - Dorothy "Dot" Lyon, a seemingly unimposing Minnesota housewife and mother. We meet her with her daughter at a junior high school board meeting. But when the meeting devolves into a giant brawl, Dot fights fiercely to get her daughter to safety. Once she gets outside, she's grabbed by the police and thrown into a cop car. The deputy is played by Richa Moorjani, the star of "Never Have I Ever." She's behind the wheel, and Dot, played by Juno Temple, is handcuffed in the back seat and leaning forward to begin a conversation.


JUNO TEMPLE: (As Dot Lyon) Ma'am, I'm sorry. Could you - I'm worried about my daughter who just saw her mama carted away in handcuffs.

RICHA MOORJANI: (As Indira Olmstead) Well, you should have thought about that before you tased the officer.

TEMPLE: (As Dot Lyon) Should have thought, oh, boy, I hope my daughter don't see her mama carted away in handcuffs.

MOORJANI: (As Indira Olmstead) What's the world coming to is all I'm saying - neighbor against neighbor.

TEMPLE: (As Dot Lyon) That - I agree with you there. We were just trying, me and my girl, to get out school board meeting, my A-S-S. And then Mr. Abernathy, the math teacher - he came at me like someone from a zombie movie, which - don't come at a mama lion when she's got her cub. You know what I mean? But the officer, that - he was just wrong place, wrong time.

BIANCULLI: That arrest sets this new season of "Fargo" in motion. That's partly because Dot has married into a wealthy family, and her mother-in-law, Lorraine, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, already drips with disapproval. Leigh is outstanding here, like an even more imperious Katharine Hepburn. But everyone in this cast is a treat and a bonus. David Rysdahl from "Oppenheimer" plays Dot's husband, Wayne, who's sweet and supportive. Dave Foley from "The Kids In The Hall" and "NewsRadio" plays the family attorney, Danish Graves, who's ruthless. All of them are at Lorraine's dinner table the night of the school board meeting after Dodd has been arrested, booked and released.


JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: (As Lorraine Lyon) What were you doing there in the first place?

TEMPLE: (As Dot Lyon) I mean, it was a school board meeting. I'm on the committee for the new library. We're trying to raise money to expand thrillers and mysteries - Lee Child and the like.

LEIGH: (As Lorraine Lyon) Can't you just give money like a normal person?

DAVID RYSDAHL: (As Wayne Lyon) Come on now, Ma. We don't have - I make a good wage, but...

LEIGH: (As Lorraine Lyon) You have a trust. Just talk to Danish - nothing frivolous, of course, which, thrillers - might want to think that through a little more. Or here's a thought. Write your own pulp fiction now that you're an outlaw.

BIANCULLI: The other plotline set in motion by Dot's outlaw status has to do with her mysterious past, which becomes an issue once her fingerprints are in the national law enforcement database. Several people end up looking for her, and one of them, who doesn't even have a line of dialogue until Episode 2, is North Dakota Sheriff Roy Tillman, played by Jon Hamm. He sure is worth the wait, though. Sheriff Tillman operates by his own rules. That's made clear the first time he's visited by a pair of FBI agents out to rein him in - Jessica Pohly as Agent Meyer and Nick Gomez as Agent Joaquin.


JON HAMM: (As Roy Tillman) Agent Jaqueen (ph).

NICK GOMEZ: (As Agent Joaquin) It's Joaquin. This is Agent Meyer. We're new in the Fargo office. We thought we'd come by and see why you aren't enforcing any of our laws.

HAMM: (As Roy Tillman) What laws?

GOMEZ: (As Agent Joaquin) Well, you know, gun laws, drug laws, any of a half-dozen other American laws passed and ratified by the United States government that you don't seem to recognize.

HAMM: (As Roy Tillman) Well, Agent Jaqueen, I think you'll find that there is no one on God's green Earth who is a greater enforcer of the laws of this land than Roy Tillman.

JESSICA POHLY: (As Agent Meyer) Why do I feel like there's a but here?

HAMM: (As Roy Tillman) But what you need to know is that I am the law of the land, elected by the residents of this county to interpret and enforce the Constitution given unto us by Almighty God.

BIANCULLI: The special thrills in this edition of "Fargo" include the entertaining resourcefulness of Dot, the unexpected alliances of several characters, the fiery confrontations when dangerous adversaries finally come face to face and, as always, the sudden eruptions of humor and violence, sometimes at the same instant. I don't know how Noah Hawley and his team keep pulling off each new season of "Fargo," but somehow they do.

MOSLEY: David Bianculli is professor of television studies at Rowan University. He's reviewed the new season of "Fargo," which begins tomorrow on FX. On tomorrow's show, award-winning playwright Larissa FastHorse talks about her satirical comedy "The Thanksgiving Play" and bringing Native American voices to the theater. "The Thanksgiving Play" was one of the most produced plays in America, and this year FastHorse became the first Native American woman known to have a play produced on Broadway. I hope you can join us.


MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.