NOEL KING, HOST:
The anthology TV series "Fargo" returns for a fourth season on FX on Sunday. Again this year, it has a whole new story and a whole new cast, including Chris Rock. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the comedian has arrived as a dramatic actor.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: In the new season of "Fargo," Chris Rock plays a Black crime boss in 1950s Kansas City. Loy Cannon is smart, ambitious and ruthless in a way that he expects his family members to emulate. To teach his musician son that lesson, Cannon makes him watch as he shows a man begging for spare change a giant wad of money. And when the beggar's eyes grow wide, Cannon tucks his money back into his own coat pocket.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")
CHRIS ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) I just stole from that man. Forget it weren't his money. See, five seconds ago, this young hustler was fingering the holes in his pocket living the now. But then he sees this, and he starts to dream. He made a future for himself, and I took that from him.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Am I getting paid or...
ROCK: (As Loy Cannon) Give out of here.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That ain't right. That ain't right.
DEGGANS: Like the guy asking for money, I wasn't quite sure what happened there beyond a pointless bit of cruelty meant to show how tough Cannon is. But I know I had just seen a great performance of a powerful monologue. "Fargo's" fourth season is filled with these moments, glorious opportunities for scenery chewing that set up wonderfully eccentric characters and situations. But, ultimately, they leave you unsure of where the story's going. The most interesting parts of "Fargo's" fourth season revolve around Cannon's building tension with Italian mobsters. To keep the peace, they've exchanged children. One young boy from each family lives with the other as a hostage. Much of the season is about their attempts to compete without sparking a war that would lead to each child's death. There are other stories and oddball characters - a murderous nurse from Minnesota whose accent reminds you of the show's title, a biracial girl named Ethelrida who serves as a bit of a narrator and a racist devout Mormon played by "Justified" alum Timothy Olyphant, who announces himself to a Kansas City police captain in a distinctive way.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")
TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (As Dick Wickware) U.S. Marshal Dick Wickware in pursuit of two cons escaped the night previous from our Lady of Regret Women's Prison.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Why the christ didn't you just say so when I walked in?
OLYPHANT: (As Dick Wickware) Captain Hennick (ph) I can safely say you blasphemy more than any man I've ever met, and I've been to Cleveland.
DEGGANS: It's easy to mistake oddness for innovation and weirdness for creativity. "Fargo" constantly perches on the edge of that line. Disconnected from the film that bestowed its name, "Fargo" the series has become a brand, signaling smart, eccentric crime stories filled with quirky characters. But for all that to work, the stories ultimately have to make sense. And though I haven't seen the last two episodes of the season, which were delayed by the pandemic, what I have seen leaves me convinced this season's story may be the weakest link in an otherwise masterful collection of characters and scenes. I'm Eric Deggans.
(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "WINGBEATS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.