There's no place quite like the twisted heartland of FX's Fargo (Tuesday, 10/9c), a marvelous 10-episode variation on themes established in the quirky 1996 Oscar winning film. Once again, warm and neighborly small-town decency gives way to a bitter chill that has less to do with the snowy Minnesota plains than with the dark crevasses of human depravity.
"Some roads you shouldn't go down," warns Lorne Malvo, a perversely playful embodiment of chaotic menace portrayed with masterful understatement by Billy Bob Thornton. Malvo is no ordinary hit man. When his latest assignment hits a speed bump in the rural backwater of Bemidji, he decides to enjoy the detour by messing with the minds and fates of unprepared locals. His initial target: Lester Nygaard, a henpecked, easily bullied milquetoast of a born loser (Martin Freeman, squirming with exquisite pathos) whose meek existence gets upended after he randomly crosses paths with Malvo in a hospital waiting room.
"You spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren't," Malvo mischievously philosophizes, spurring Lester to unusually assertive action with deadly consequences. In classic Coen Brothers fashion, also reminiscent of the mischievous ironies of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it's all pretty darned funny — until it suddenly really isn't.
From the ripples of Malvo's wry malevolence emerge two endearing heroes: dogged Bemidji cop Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman in a star-is-born breakthrough) and a more forlorn officer from nearby Duluth, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a single dad who questions his mettle after his first unnerving encounter with the sinister interloper.
As with True Detective, the first season of Fargo has been conceived as a self-contained chapter of an anthology, with new characters, stars and settings in future years. Unlike HBO's murky and rather pretentious drama, Fargo's compelling, powerfully entertaining story is as strong as its great performances. I'm almost halfway through and still have no idea where the next hour will take me. What delicious anticipation. Fargo may not be your dream destination, but I bet you'll want to go to there.
2 BROKE-UP GIRLS: If breaking up is hard to do, it's even harder to watch on Fox's Tuesday night comedies. New Girl returns from a three-week hiatus (9/8c) with Nick and Jess still recovering from their split — he drunkenly had to write down on his hands what happened so he'd know it wasn't all a bad dream (also a good way to provide exposition for anyone else who forgot, or wanted to forget). As the couple tries, mostly in vain, to keep the awkwardness to themselves and not spread the pain, we move on to The Mindy Project (9:30/8:30), where Mindy and Danny's blink-and-you-missed-it not-quite-secret love match still resonates, with Mindy so desperate for a rebound that she's taking dating tips from office cad Peter (Adam Pally) — which brings us to the night's distracting stunt-casting.
Max Greenfield, so indelibly Schmidt on New Girl — who takes the news about Nick and Jess particularly badly — shows some range in a Mindy guest role as a sheepish first-grade teacher whom Mindy aggressively hits on while prowling a singles bar. Who's the jerk in this one-night-stand scenario might be worth debating, but Schmidt would run screaming from both of these creatures.
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COMEDY AND HISTORY: A new season of PBS's Pioneers of Television opens with a pop-cultural survey of comics who went from Standup to Sitcom (8/7c, check tvguide.com listings), featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Roseanne Barr, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Ray Romano — whose Everybody Loves Raymond was inducted last week into the National Association of Broadcasters' Hall of Fame, an event at which I moderated a Raymond panel (and guess what, the show holds up). The journey for many of these comics involved being "discovered" by the likes of Johnny Carson or David Letterman after years of honing their craft on stage — and in the case of Cosby and Newhart, famously on recordings. From there it's a transition, as Seinfeld puts it, from the least collaborative medium to the most — and Romano recalls how difficult it was to feel comfortable getting laughs with someone else's words. These stars often fought to translate their stand-up persona to the sitcom stage with honesty and clarity, none more infamously than Roseanne, who reflects on her accomplishment with pride: "I did what I came to do. ... I wanted to tear down some walls." And make us laugh in the process.
PBS also scores with one of the more unusual documentary films in Ken Burns' prolific canon: The Address (9/8c, check tvguide.com listings), a piece of living history set at a Vermont boys' boarding school that specializes in treating language-based learning difficulties, as students embark on an annual rite-of-passage challenge to recite the complete Gettysburg Address from memory. It's a moving and inspiring process as the boys learn not only the meaning and majesty of Lincoln's words but a sense of self-worth and purpose.
THE TUESDAY GUIDE: The events in current box-office champ Captain America: The Winter Soldier continue to impact the heroes of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as ABC repeats last week's episode at 8/7c, followed by a new episode at 9/8c in which Colonel Talbot (Adrian Pasdar) leads the search for Coulson and his team, which includes one apparent traitor. ... Nickelodeon's Nick News With Linda Ellerbee interviews young athletes who were injured playing the games they love in Sidelined: How Safe Are Kids' Sports? (8/7c). ... ESPN kicks off a new 30 for 30 documentary series of Soccer Stories with Hillsborough (8/7c), a 25th-anniversary remembrance of the English soccer stadium disaster that claimed 96 lives in 1989. ... The contestants on Syfy's Jim Henson's Creature Show Challenge (10/9c) are off to meet the wizard — namely, Scrubs' Donald Faison. He joins the weekly "Screen Test" as a wizard who comically interacts with the designers' mechanized projects, each having created a creature mounted on the wizard's wall after being slain, though still possessing the ability to talk back.