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‘Fargo’: Chris Rock brings the pain — and the menace — in an ambitious, mobbed-up period piece

Chicago poses as 1950 Kansas City in the fourth season of FX’s series, full of elaborate scenes and strong performances.

Chris Rock stars as Loy Cannon in this scene from “Fargo.”
Loy Cannon (Chris Rock), head of the Black crime syndicate in Kansas City, faces off against a rival on “Fargo.”
FX

“You know why America loves a crime story? Because America IS a crime story.” – Crime syndicate boss Josto Fadda in Season 4 of “Fargo.”

We’ve known Chris Rock can handle serious dramatic roles ever since he played the crack addict Pookie in “New Jack City” back in 1991, but Rock gives what might be his most impressive performance to date in Season 4 of “Fargo,” a gloriously eccentric, blood-spattered and mobbed-up period piece about the evil men (and women) do in the pursuit of power and the almighty dollar.

One could say Rock is the lead in this installment of Noah Hawley’s anthology series, which debuts on FX on Sept. 27. (I’ve seen the first nine of the 11 episodes.) That also could be said of Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Buckley, E’myri Crutchfield, Timothy Olyphant, Glynn Turman and a number of other cast members. This is the kind of share-the-wealth, ensemble-driven set piece where a dozen actors could be eligible for a Lead Performance nomination — or be in the supporting category.

Although Season 4 is set in the Kansas City of 1950, shooting took place in the Chicago neighborhoods of Rogers Park and Uptown, as well as Elgin and Blue Island. (Production was halted last spring when COVID-19 hit, and resumed in August under safety protocols.) In the series premiere, we get an explainer about the history of crime syndicates in the city, from Jewish gangsters to an Irish syndicate to Italian mobsters. Cut to 1950, where the Italian syndicate, run by Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno) and his son Josto (Jason Schwartzman), and the Black criminal organization, headed by Rock’s Loy Cannon, are continuing the longstanding and dubious tradition of trading sons between families, under the deeply twisted logic this will keep the peace. Loy’s son Satchel (Rodney L. Jones III) will be raised by the Faddas, and Donatello’s son Zero (Jameson Braccioforte) will grow up in the Cannon household, in a kind of warped insurance policy.

What could possibly go right?

The Italian syndicate is run by Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman) and his father on “Fargo.”
FX

At times it’s hard to keep track of the players without a scorecard. In the opening episodes, we meet a vast and colorful array of mostly oddball and quite fascinating players, including:

  • Josto’s unhinged, wild-eyed brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito), who arrives in America with tales of killing Mussolini and is champing at the bit to go to war with the Cannons.
  • The cheerfully psychotic nurse Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), who sports an accent straight out of the original “Fargo” movie and has euthanized dozens of patients through the years. (If she ever runs into Nurse Ratched from the Netflix universe, look out.)
A cheery demeanor conceals the deadly habits of nurse Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley).
FX
  • High school prodigy Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), who serves as the narrator and perhaps the hero of our story.
  • Escaped convicts and lovers Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capp (Kelsey Asbille), who pull off a violent robbery that could start a war between the families.
  • Cannon family consigliere Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman), who is neither a doctor nor a senator.
  • The Mormon, carrot-crunching U.S. Marshall Dick “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant), who speaks softly but carries a big gun.

Yes, virtually every character on the show has a wacky, Coen Brothers-type name. We also get a terrifically morbid tribute to Anton Chigurh’s weapon of choice in “No Country for Old Men,” as well as nods to Coen brothers films such as “A Serious Man,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Raising Arizona.” As the storylines branch out in multiple directions before eventually meeting head-on in often violent fashion, the screen sometimes splits into two or three images, perfectly mirroring the fractured and yet connected nature of the jigsaw puzzle plot. As much as the Faddas and the Cannons talk about avoiding all-out war and sticking to their respective turfs, it seems as if it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

Filmed in rich but muted tones of brown and orange, light greens and subtle shades of red, featuring pitch-perfect costumes and set design and bolstered by a brilliant score, “Fargo” feels utterly of its time and place. The dialogue is stylized and clever, e.g., “Nobody’s smart and dumb at the same time” and “Goodness, your mind’s a clutter of grievances,” and maybe my favorite: “You’re lucky my man was there or I’d be cutting your throat with a can of cat food right now.” There’s even a nod to the ubiquitous presence of oranges in “The Godfather.”

Every episode contains stunning, elaborately choreographed scenes worthy of a major feature film. This is one of the best-looking series of the year, featuring some of the strongest performances of the year from more than a dozen of our finest actors.