Chris Rock’s greatest performances are as Chris Rock.
There’s his stand-up comedy, and the many times he’s played himself, or versions of himself, Woody Allen-style, on TV and in movies: Louie, Top Five, I Think I Love My Wife... Don’t be fooled. Those are great performances, deftly allowing the indelible, too-large-to-stifle “Chris Rock-ness” to breathe through the characters. But they’re also a testament to how hard it is to forget that you’re watching Chris Rock, no matter how great an acting turn he’s giving.
That adds another layer to the intrigue in the fact that he’s starring in the new season of Fargo, which launches on FX Sunday night.
It’s not just the “Comedy Actor Does Drama!” fascination that should be passé at this point, yet still dominates any conversation surrounding Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, or Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls. It’s the fact that he’s taking the leap into one of TV’s most specific and peculiar aesthetics—Noah Hawley’s translation of the Coen Brothers headspace in the FX anthology series—an aesthetic that Rock’s own specific and peculiar voice would seem to clash with.
In that respect, Rock’s turn on Fargo is one of the most interesting headlines when it comes to fall TV dramas this season. That he rises to the occasion so assuredly and somewhat unexpectedly makes it one of the season’s highlights, too.
Critics are compelled to grade seasons of Fargo on somewhat of a curve, comparing the four seasons against each other, specifically how they measure up to the benchmark-setting, ’70s-set second season featuring Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Ted Danson, and Jean Smart. And if the consensus seems to be that this fourth go-round doesn’t meet that bar, it still ranks among the finest limited series on TV this year.
That Rock is doing such solid work playing against type is a massive part of that. (We should temper the enthusiasm a bit. It’s hardly the biggest or best dramatic performance of the year. But it is a surprising triumph worth praising.)
Of course, maybe there shouldn’t have been any skepticism surrounding Rock’s entrée into Fargo. The series’ shrewd, adventurous casting is among its greatest thrills.
It’s created showcases for veteran performers that reveal them in new lights: Billy Bob Thornton, Ewan McGregor, Dunst, or Smart, for example. It’s given character actors the opportunity to make meals out of strange, great roles: Martin Freeman, David Thewlis, Jesse Plemons. And it’s made some of the most exciting discoveries in the last decade of TV with the likes of Alison Tolman and Bokeem Woodbine.
The fourth season of Fargo is set in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1950. For decades, the city has hosted turf wars between crime families. First a Jewish gang faced off with the Irish, who then dealt with the Italians, who, with the arrival of Rock’s Loy Cannon, ar challenged by his Black crew.
Each gang represents another culture and ethnicity migrating west across America. As explained by a Black teenage student named Ethelrida (E'Myri Crutchfield), who is the moral center of this season like a younger, more precocious Marge Gunderson from the 1996 film, “If America is a nation of immigrants then how does one become American?” She points out the fallacy of assimilation: “Similar to what?”
To keep the peace over the years, each crime family has offered a son to the other in a trade. The thinking goes that raising the offspring of the enemy will help create a stasis of understanding. That, of course, doesn’t happen, but also doesn’t keep the tradition from staying alive when Rock’s Cannon arrives and trades his son to the Italians.
It’s the catalyst for the Fargo-ian tensions between Cannon’s family and the Italians, counting Jason Schwartzman’s Josto Fadda as his main adversary among a sprawling web of characters. (With at least 25 main characters, things become more unwieldy than usual for even a Fargo season.)
We’re conditioned to root for Cannon. He’s played by Chris Rock. When are you not rooting for Chris Rock? But playing sterner and also slightly older than usual, the limbered youthfulness Rock usually radiates transforms into a believable toughness. Blessedly, he’s not doing gangster drag here, or disguising his voice into some theatrical Godfather-esque accent.
In his previous dramatic roles, especially when playing a romantic lead, Rock’s strength has been in portraying frustration and annoyance, a translation of his kinetic comedy persona into a character who’s at his wit’s end. That musicality of his voice isn’t dampened here, and sometimes when acting against Schwartzman, especially, the characteristic modern sensibility can make their exchanges seem anachronistic.
But in the world of Fargo, where everything is curious and extreme, even that somehow fits.
With someone like Adam Sandler, for example, the revelation in Uncut Gems came from dialing everything up, from his speaking cadence to his already hectic energy—essentially sending his range of talents hurtling at us. Rock’s work is the more traditional comedy-great-does-drama strategy of subduing and slowing down, a way of harnessing and then controlling the charisma we’re accustomed to seeing him dole out.
It works to great effect here, especially played against the tonal whimsy of a Coen Brothers-inspired outfit and the previous seasons of the show.
You might expect Rock’s character to adopt the oddball quirkiness that dresses the Fargo universe. You have an idea of who Rock is, the persona he exudes, and the elastic volume of his comedy. That instead he’s so centered and meticulous is unsettling. Those preconceived notions of his comic persona haunt each scene to the point that you’re on edge wondering if they’ll ever be uncorked.
It’s the TV-watching version of observing anxiously as someone slowly goes through the mechanics of opening a bottle of champagne, constantly flinching, waiting for the loud pop. It’s impressive how Rock and the show manipulate and manage the intensity of that anticipation.
The feat is an extension of what Fargo has always done best, itself an execution of the Coen Brothers playbook. No series is better at mining tension from impending violence. Sometimes it does so by disorienting you with comedy, so that the shocked gasp when the guns fire interrupts the laughter you’d yet to finish from the joke seconds before. Or sometimes it does so by halting movement to slow motion, drawing out the inevitable longer than should be passable for a TV show.
Fargo is a series that gets away with moving at a purposeful pace, what with its shots so lovingly crafted and dialogue so deliciously dense. While, if possible, paying even more careful attention to artful framing and composition, not to mention a script packed with gorgeous allegories about morality and what it means to be American (though, to its detriment, arguably too much of them), this swath of episodes does start to test patience as things move at a more lethargic clip, verging on glacial.
This critique is different when it comes to Fargo than to the torturous bloat of most prestige programming. There is still plenty of stuff going on here. The constant humor plays in harmony with the gore; at one point in the early run of episodes, a flatulence motif becomes operatic. Every kooky character entertains and the lark-like divergences into side plots all captivate. The juxtaposition between the bumbling ineptitude of Fargo-verse criminals and the grave stakes of their violent delights is always entertaining.
But after a while you start to feel unmoored from a central thread, one that seems to progress more lackadaisically than what we’re used to—even when it comes to Fargo.
Where Fargo was once a jolt into the landscape of one-note pedigree TV and bland, uninspired, and often cynical small-screen adaptations of familiar movies, it’s now a soothing one, a return to an established vibe and, more importantly, guarantee of quality. The freshness, then, comes with something as exciting as Rock’s performance, just the right kind of risk that throws all expectations where they belong: in the woodchipper.