Derivative, erratic, and occasionally brilliant: how else to describe the whiplash-inducing second episode of FX's "Fargo," which aired Tuesday night? My concern after the superb first episode was that the show would eventually come to feel like a mish-mash of too many genres and styles. Simultaneously creepy and light in a manner both startling and eventually tiresome, Episode 2 was Exhibit A.
The comedy, for starters, was simply not as crisp or funny. The off-handed callousness of Episode's 1's almost Evelyn Waugh-ish humor was replaced by less subtle, more standard fare, starting with the hitmen who practice some variety of sign-language, and continuing with Bob Odenkirk's police chief. Odenkirk is excellent, as always, but the character is too goofy to be either believable or interesting. The same went for Oliver Platt's newly introduced, broadly drawn businessman. (His unfunny son was much less amusing than the two devilish Hess boys.)
But the comedy was less of a problem than the pacing and tone. While the episode was less violent and brutal than the premiere (at least until the final scene), the accompanying music went from loud and jumpy to ominous, and then back again, but never for long enough to build a sustained mood. If the creators are trying to make a point, I would guess it is that evil and menace can interrupt even the most mundane occasions. (The scene where Colin Hanks is talking to his daughter over dinner and his ketchup starts spreading like blood on his plate makes this point in a rather literal way.) But too often the show felt uncertain of what is was trying to accomplish, or convey.
Moreover, while I enjoyed the allusions to other Coen Brothers films in the premiere, they are beginning to feel derivative. The scene in which Billy Bob Thornton's killer plays verbal games with an older man at the post office felt very similar to the scene in No Country For Old Men where Javier Bardem torments an old storekeeper with a coin. And the scene with Allison Tolman's police officer and her father ("savagery, pure and simple") was a near clone of the (brilliant) scene in No Country when Tommy Lee Jones goes to see his uncle and they discuss the evil that men do. (It was also somewhat similar to a conversation about optimism and pessimism that Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman conduct in Se7en.) Whether these are conscious tips of the hat to older superb movies isn't clear, but if they are homages, they feel like overkill. (Thornton at one point states that he "doesn't watch movies," which is perhaps a sign that they are intentional.)
Still, the episode had its moments. Martin Freeman did a fabulous job of lying in the manner that a nervous and scared person would lie (although, again, Odenkirk's stupidity was just not plausible.) And the wondereful parking-lot exchange between Freeman and Tollman crackled. In fact, it was the only scene that felt unbroken by comedy or bathos. There are certainly enough ingredients for a great show here, but, to continue with the metaphor, it will take some more refining to find the right recipe.