"You know why America loves a crime story? Because America is a crime story," says Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman), the heir to an Italian American criminal enterprise, to Loy Cannon, the head of an African American criminal enterprise, in the latest season of FX's "Fargo."
Be assured that the series created by Noah Hawley is not an editorial on the state of things in 2020. First as a 1996 movie from the Coen brothers and then as a TV series spinoff that began in 2014, the franchise has always been an exercise in style with some extremely melancholy things to share about human nature.
But it's impossible to watch the fourth season, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, without seeing it through the lens of this year's racial injustice and hemorrhaging political rupture. (Calling it a political divide just doesn't cut it anymore.) Seen through this prism, things are bleak in real life, but possibly bleaker and more chaotic in the "Fargo" universe.
The action begins in 1950 Kansas City, with a sequence in the first episode that compresses a half-century of crime syndicate history as an evolution of marginalized communities - Jewish, Irish, Italian and Black - fighting for their piece of the American financial pie. The players may change, but illegal activity remains a route to economic power when other doors are closed by bigotry.
Two families rule in post-World War II Kansas City, the Faddas and the Cannons, who follow the city's "Fargo"-dictated tradition of sending their youngest sons to live with the opposing family to maintain a fragile peace. Children are a pawn in this story, and it's their fate that provides a reason to care emotionally about an often brutal storyline.
It's prohibited by pop-culture law to reveal any spoilers about "Fargo," so instead of delving into the plot - the immigration and assimilation angles, the inherent racism of the U.S. justice system and the role that money plays in the American dream - let's look at the characters, who are the quirkiest assortment yet of the series.
Characters always are the compass of "Fargo." It's nearly impossible to recall the intricacies of what happened in past seasons. What remains are the people they bring to life: the inherently decent, small-town police chief (Allison Tolman) of season one, the steely matriarch Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) of season two and the doomed identical-twin Stussy brothers (Ewan McGregor) of season three.
This year's standout is Chris Rock, who is mesmerizing as Loy Cannon, a formidable syndicate boss who is denied respect by other crime bosses and crooked white cops because he is Black. The comedy superstar reveals his dramatic range as he embodies the rage and gravitas of an older man who's beating a system that has never acknowledged him as an equal.
Playing one of Loy's main rivals, Jason Schwartzman aims for parody as the irritable blowhard Josto Fadda, whose father, Donatello (Tomasso Ragno), knows better than to trust his rash son. Schwartzman is the nephew of "The Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola, and as such, his variation on those big-screen Italian mobsters can be seen as another in a long series of rue when Josto's brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito), an unblinking man hulk, flies in from Italy. "Fargo" inside joke.
Speaking of very scary jokes, Italian actor Esposito makes a huge impression as Gaetano. Physically, he is three times as large as the compact Josto, and his towering, operatic menace is enough to give you nightmares - or remind you of a villain from an old Looney Tunes cartoon.