“Fargo” returns to FX on Sunday night, slipping back onto television after a three-year absence like one of its Midwestern lowlifes suddenly drifting back into town. Some of the delay was pandemic-related — production on the fourth season was shut down temporarily in March — but most of it probably had to do with the workload of the show’s creator and primary writer, Noah Hawley, who oversaw several seasons of his superhero series “Legion” in the meantime.
In its first three seasons, “Fargo,” Hawley’s anthological riff on Ethan and Joel Coen’s mock-noir film of the same title, had adhered to the movie’s sparsely populated Minnesota milieu and roughly contemporary time period (Season 2 took place in 1979). The fourth season takes the show on the road, moving back in time to 1950 and several states south, to the urban setting of Kansas City.
That’s just the beginning of the changes, though. Until now, Hawley’s “Fargo” had never been too concerned with the larger world outside its Midwestern pockets of depravity — it happily dispensed its mordantly fatalistic crime plots, mannered humor and hyperbolic violence without much practical connection to the social structures in which they took place.
In the new season, “Fargo” gets a conscience, or at least a frame of reference. Hawley has embraced two opportunities the move to the city gave him: He’s made the season a full-scale gangster saga, a switch from his past scenarios of small-town menace; and he’s entwined that with a more elaborate than usual cultural and racial allegory.
So the 11-episode season isn’t just the story of Italian and Black gangs fighting to dominate the rackets in Kansas City. It’s the story of competing groups who are all shut out of the American capitalist dream — a prologue shows the successive waves of Kansas City gangs, beginning with Jewish and Irish — and it revives the longstanding cinematic equation of organized crime with social mobility. As the Mafia and the Black syndicate head toward war, a lengthy process that stretches past the season’s midpoint, gangsters line up on the sides of coexistence or conflict like civil rights leaders choosing between Martin or Malcolm.
And one of the season’s primary plot devices — an old-world system in which rival gang leaders trade sons, giving away their children as hostages — is part of the symbolism, too, as the criminal outsiders duplicate the kind of subjugation and ownership that American society visits on them.
Given how thorough the mix of crime story and social allegory is, Hawley and his crew have done an impressive job of weaving; it rarely feels as if we’re being preached to, even though we are. And under the production designer Warren Alan Young, the show continues to look great, making a seamless transition from the dark woods and snowy roads of Minnesota to the streets of a bustling midcentury city.
But it’s not the same “Fargo.” It’s a more ordinary show, a more mundanely plotted and “watchable” show (through the nine episodes available for review), with less of the strangeness and arch surrealism that didn’t always work but generally kept you engaged with the stories. Its oddities felt original in earlier seasons; here, they tend toward caricature.
And cliché. The central story line, centered on a Black mob boss played by Chris Rock and Mafia co-captains played by Jason Schwartzman and Salvatore Esposito, is a gangster-film greatest-hits collection, though in a satirical mode. A Mafia don is accidentally felled by children playing (“The Godfather”); a bloody shootout takes place in a vintage train station (“The Untouchables”); a businesslike Italian struggles to control his hotheaded brother (“The Godfather” again); period gangsters are worn by their oversize hats (the Coens’ “Miller’s Crossing”). You make the connections, and wish you were rewatching the films. (Though there’s a “Wizard of Oz” reference that really does come out of left field.)
Hawley supplies some secondary story lines that have more of the old “Fargo” eccentricity, but they don’t get enough care or screen time to really matter. Jessie Buckley plays an angel-of-death nurse from Minnesota in a role that seems to have been conceived primarily to get the obligatory flat Nordic accent onscreen. E’myri Crutchfield is good as a precocious teenager whose undertaker parents are caught up in gang business, but her character feels underused and peripheral, even though she serves as an occasional narrator. Karen Aldridge and Kelsey Asbille fare better as escaped convicts and lovers who also get pulled into the battle.
As usual for “Fargo,” the cast is large and well-stocked, and a few people manage to be distinctive, including Aldridge, Glynn Turman as the Black gang’s consigliere and Ben Whishaw as an Irishman caught between rival factions. Rock doesn’t make a consistently strong impression as the reined-in gang boss Loy Cannon, though he’s effective when the script lets him build up to a riff, or allows him a comic reaction.
The characters tend to be as thin as the story they inhabit, though, and vivid performers like Buckley and Esposito (of the Italian gangster series “Gomorrah”) can’t do much with the cartoons they’ve been given to play. “Fargo” has always depended on a balance of outlandish incident and sympathetic character — it succeeds to the extent that we care about the mostly dreadful fates of the people involved. Seasons 1 (Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, Keith Carradine, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks), 2 (Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons) and 3 (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) gave us wonderful actors in parts that engaged our emotions, but the downward trend was noticeable, and it’s bottomed out in Season 4.