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Chris Rock isn’t having enough fun in the new season of ‘Fargo’

Racism sucks, but it doesn’t make Black people impervious to irony

For years, the world of Fargo has been a playground for character actors, a show nimble and daring in its ability to marry the macabre with comedic delight, marveling viewers with its capacity to elicit smiles at the sight of a bad guy getting ground into top round.

It would seem then that a fourth season of FX’s hit anthology series, which premieres Sept. 27 — a takeoff from the 1996 Coen brothers film of the same name — would be a natural home for actor and comedian Chris Rock.

Alas, it’s mostly just … fine. Neither terrible nor especially exciting, but more or less adequate, if awkward at times.

Perhaps this is because Rock doesn’t actually bring much humor to his portrayal of Loy Cannon, head of a Black organized crime syndicate in 1950s Kansas City, Missouri, who finds himself at odds with the Faddas, a rival outfit of Italian gangsters.

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Rock remarked that the role of Cannon was “the best part I’ve ever had,” though he might have been so precious with it that he forgot to have a bit of fun.

Cannon enters a fight over power and territory that, in creator and showrunner Noah Hawley’s narrative, is also an allegory about who gets to be American and how they are recognized as such. There is a tradition in this fictional Kansas City: One set of immigrants moves into town and sets up shop. When members of a rival ethnicity move in, there’s a truce. Each family hands over a son to the other to raise as a hostage/insurance policy for when blood inevitably starts to hit the fan. In the process, those who partake, be they Jews, Irishmen or Italian immigrants, stake their claim to profit-making in the American underground economy, amassing fortunes that will ease their troubles until they’re eventually subsumed into an ever-expanding category of whiteness.

Tommaso Ragno (left) as Donatello Fadda and Chris Rock (right) as Loy Cannon in the new season of Fargo.

Elizabeth Morris/FX

But this evolution, one that begins with pulling into New York Harbor with little more than hopes and dreams, can’t work for Cannon. He’s Black, descended from stolen and enslaved Africans, and no amount of money, earned under the table or over it, will change that. Nevertheless, Cannon throws his fedora into the enterprise anyway, and trades sons with the Faddas.

It’s an interesting enough premise, though I fear Hawley sometimes encounters the same traps that befell Joel and Ethan Coen when they made Suburbicon (2017). It was in many ways a typical Coen brothers film, but clumsy in the way it incorporated a plotline about a Black family facing violent racism after moving into an idyllic white suburb.

Hawley has tasked himself with a tremendous feat of narrative juggling. Besides the Faddas (riven by infighting between an heir apparent and his bloodthirsty, fresh-from-the-old-country brother) and the Cannons, the story follows its narrator, a precocious biracial Francophone teen, Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), her undertaker parents and their oddball neighbor, Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), a nurse who lives in the apartment building across the street. Oh, and there may or may not be some ghosts. Tonally, Hawley often struggles to marry the universe of his Black characters with the absurdity that’s intrinsic to his white ones, such as Mayflower, and a determined, carrot-chomping Mormon U.S. marshal named Dick “Deafy” Wickware, played by Timothy Olyphant. Wickware feels like a character pulled from an earlier season and parachuted into this one; Olyphant appears to be having the time of his life. In short, the Cannons and the Smutnys could use a little more of the humorous juice that makes Fargo, well, Fargo. Racism, as much as it sucks, does not make Black people impervious to irony.

As Cannon, Rock isn’t a particularly fearsome or charismatic gang leader — that distinction goes to his lieutenant and chief strategist, Doctor Senator, played by a glittering, smoothly criminal Glynn Turman. Time and again, when the task at hand calls for a snide but commanding finesse, Rock is just a tad too stiff, like when he slices the hand of Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw), an Irish immigrant, raised by Jews, who now runs with the Faddas and is responsible for keeping Cannon’s youngest son alive. In another instance, Cannon stands before his men, about to teach a hungry junkie a lesson by waving an enormous roll of cash in his face. He refers to the wad as “the blight.”

E’myri Crutchfield as Ethelrida Pearl Smutny in episode two of the new season of Fargo.

Elizabeth Morris/FX

It all lands a little flat. Rock, too often, is missing the cold detachment of a man who’s seen everything. (Perhaps I’m being unfair, and still fuming that Bokeem Woodbine didn’t win an Emmy in an earlier season for playing Mike Milligan and uttering the coldest rendition of Jabberwocky ever captured on camera.) Cannon reserves his most pointed and threatening ire for the women in his life, practically spitting his rage at his wife and her mother for not being sufficiently grateful for the fruits of his hustling.

Mostly though, as it seeks to make points about assimilation, capitalism and whiteness, Fargo gets lost, taking too many bleak, undersaturated detours designed for self-indulgent speechifying — “I’m not just fighting Italians, I’m fighting 400 years of history,” Cannon says — to the point that Hawley ends up lecturing his audience for enjoying the villains of the very subgenre he helped popularize.

I’ve seen seven episodes, and what Fargo is missing, aside from a more even distribution of levity, is a female character who consistently possesses the magnetism of seasons past, whether it’s Jean Smart as Floyd Gerhardt, Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist or Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson. Buckley may come the closest as Nurse Mayflower, but more often than not, the sandbox for character actors is filled with a little too much silt.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.