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'Fargo' And Bill Nye Make Promising Returns To The Small Screen

Apr 19, 2017
Originally published on April 20, 2017 1:34 pm

The 1996 Coen Brothers movie Fargo was so good, and so original, that when the FX cable network announced it was making a new version for television, I expected it to be awful — especially since the creator of the adaptation was Noah Hawley, a writer-producer who hadn't really done much.

But Hawley's Fargo wasn't a straight remake — it was a sly and fond salute, capturing the mood and spirit of the original movie without borrowing any of its specific plots or characters. Billy Bob Thornton starred as a malevolent hit man and Martin Freeman was the quiet Midwesterner caught in his web. That Fargo miniseries wasn't just good. It was great.

So when Hawley and FX decided to reboot, start from scratch, and do a second season of Fargo with new actors and characters, once again, I wasn't expecting much. After all, I'd seen season two of HBO's True Detective, which proved how hard it was to get lightning to strike twice.

But season two of Fargo, with Jean Smart and Ted Danson among its many treats, was just as wonderful — and just as delightfully unpredictable. Then Hawley went off and made another FX series adaptation, of a Marvel Comics character named Legion, and it, too, was a major creative success.

So now, with a third season of Fargo arriving tonight on FX, my expectations are in danger of being too high, rather than too low. But based on the opening hour, Fargo is on track to be three for three.

For starters, there's a death scene worthy of a Road Runner cartoon. Also, there are two instant standout female characters and actors: Carrie Coon, fresh off HBO's The Leftovers, as small-town police chief Gloria Burgle, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, fresh off CBS's BrainDead, as ex-con competitive bridge player Nikki Swango.

There are also two breakout male characters: brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy. Both of them are played by Ewan McGregor, and it's a very impressive acting display. Emmit is sharp-looking and successful. Ray is gone to seed, and out of money — and still resentful of the fact that when their father died and left the brothers an inheritance, Emmit ended up with a valuable stamp collection, while Ray got a little red Corvette. Decades later, as Ray comes to Emmit to ask for money to buy Nikki an engagement ring, the brothers are still fighting about it.

The jealousy over the stamps leads, in the opening episode, to a botched theft, which, in turn, leads to murder, and sets another intriguing season of Fargo in motion. The acting here is as good as the writing, and the visuals — built, as with season one, around the isolated snow and ice of the Midwest — are like paintings that move. And for current or former stamp collectors, this new Fargo even suggests a memorable moral: Philately will get you nowhere.

Friday on Netflix, there's another noteworthy return. This time it's Bill Nye, whose Disney Channel series Bill Nye the Science Guy made him a geeky rock star of sorts to the millennial generation. Now he's back, with a new science series called Bill Nye Saves the World.

This time Nye's show is aimed at adults — and aimed, specifically, to tackle such third-rail topics as health vaccines and climate change. In his shows, Nye conducts experiments, sends his correspondents across the globe to report on rising water levels in Venice and polio vaccines in India and interviews studio guests. The show works so well because it relies so strongly upon scientific and provable facts. Bill Nye Saves the World, like season three of Fargo, is fun to watch. That's not a fact — but it's my opinion.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli has reviews of two shows returning this week. On the FX cable network, "Fargo," which was inspired by the Coen Brothers movie, resurfaces with its third all-new, standalone limited series. And on Netflix, the children's TV host known as Bill Nye the Science Guy returns with a new science series, this time for adults. Here's David.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The 1996 Coen Brothers movie "Fargo" was so good and so original that when the FX cable network announced it was making a new version for television, I expected it to be awful, especially since the creator of the adaptation was Noah Hawley, a writer-producer who hadn't really done much. But his "Fargo" wasn't a straight remake. It was a sly and fond salute, capturing the mood and spirit of the original movie without borrowing any of its specific plots or characters. Billy Bob Thornton starred as a malevolent hitman. Martin Freeman was the quiet Midwesterner caught in his web. And that "Fargo" miniseries wasn't just good: it was great.

So when Hawley and FX decided to reboot, start from scratch and do a second season of "Fargo" with new actors and characters, once again, I wasn't expecting much. After all, I'd seen season two of HBO's "True Detective," which proved how hard it was to get lightning to strike twice. But Season 2 of "Fargo," with Jean Smart and Ted Danson among its many treats, was just as wonderful and just as delightfully unpredictable. Then Hawley went off and made another FX series adaptation of a Marvel Comics character named Legion, and it, too, was a major creative success. So now with a third season of "Fargo" arriving tonight on FX, my expectations are in danger of being too high rather than too low. But based on the opening hour, "Fargo" is on track to be 3 for 3.

For starters, there's a death scene worthy of a "Road Runner" cartoon. Also, there are two instant standout female characters and actors, Carrie Coon, fresh off HBO's "The Leftovers," as small town police chief Gloria Burgle, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, fresh off CBS's "Brain Dead," as ex-con competitive bridge player Nikki Swango. And there are two breakout male characters also, brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy. Both of them are played by Ewan McGregor, and it's a very impressive acting display.

Emmitt is sharp-looking and successful. Ray has gone to seed and out of money - and still resentful of the fact that when their father died and left the brothers an inheritance, Emmit ended up with a valuable stamp collection, while Ray got a little red Corvette. Decades later, as Ray comes to Emmit to ask for money to buy Nikki an engagement ring, the brothers are still fighting about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")

EWAN MCGREGOR: (As Ray) Look, you're lucky I don't sue. I mean, a legal document, which delineates things, bequeaths them to specific parties, a father dead in a driveway, an older boy taking advantage of a younger, playing...

(As Emmit) Nobody took advantage. It was a trade. If I had a time machine you'd see. I'd play back the tape. Emmit, come on, I'm begging you take the stupid stamps already. Give me the car.

(As Ray) That's not - that was you tricking me.

(As Emmit) Ray.

(As Ray) How much did you get for them anyway? The whole collection, I never asked. What - two, three dozen stamps - vintage...

BIANCULLI: That jealousy over the stamps leads, in the opening episode, to a botched theft which in turn leads to murder and sets another intriguing season of "Fargo" in motion. The acting here is as good as the writing. And the visuals - built, as with Season 1, around the isolated snow and ice of the Midwest - are like paintings that move. And for current or former stamp collectors, this new "Fargo" even suggests a memorable moral, philately will get you nowhere.

Friday on Netflix, there's another noteworthy return. This time, it's Bill Nye whose Disney Channel series, "Bill Nye The Science Guy," made him a geeky rock star of sorts to the millennial generation. Now he's back with a new science series called "Bill Nye Saves The World." This time, his TV show is aimed at adults and aimed specifically to tackle such third-rail topics as health vaccines and climate change. In the opener, Bill Nye himself explains what he's up to because explaining, after all, is what he does best.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILL NYE SAVES THE WORLD")

BILL NYE: Hi, folks. I'm Bill Nye. You may remember me from the "Science Guy" show. Well, I'm back talking science again with a new show and a new lab. I'm loving me some Netflix on the electric internet machines that all the kids are using. I've got some new friends, a hand-picked team of brilliant correspondents, who've traveled the globe to bring us some astonishing stories.

As you've probably guessed, we're not really making a kids show. It's for you grown-up kids all over the world. We're going to be talking about important, perhaps even controversial, issues from scientific points of view. And we're going to make it a lot of fun along the way. I know, I know. A lot has changed. But one thing hasn't, the process of science - how we know what we know. And there's still so much we don't know.

BIANCULLI: And he's not afraid to take a stand. In fact, he enjoys it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILL NYE SAVES THE WORLD")

NYE: Vaccines are to germs as seat belts are to car wrecks. Now, seat belts work. They save lives. The science is settled. Vaccinations work. They save lives. That science is settled. Both are for the public good. We've known this about vaccines since the 1790s, when Edward Jenner made vaccines that worked pretty well.

BIANCULLI: In his shows, Bill Nye conducts experiments, sends his correspondents across the globe to report on rising water levels in Venice and polio vaccines in India, and interviews studio guests. The show works so well because it relies so strongly upon scientific and provable facts. "Bill Nye Saves The World," like Season 3 of "Fargo," is fun to watch. That's not a fact, but it's my opinion.

GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey, is the founder and editor of the online magazine TV Worth Watching and author of the book "The Platinum Age Of Television."

Tomorrow on fresh AIR, my guest will be Maggie Haberman, who covers the White House for The New York Times. We'll talk about covering President Trump, his White House and Mar-a-Lago and the infighting, the leaks, the tweets. She'll also tell us about covering Trump in the early 2000s when she was a reporter for the New York Post and the New York Daily News. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a song co-written by Sylvia Moy, who was one of the few women who worked at Motown Records as a songwriter and producer. She died Saturday at the age of 78. She co-wrote "It Takes Two" for Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston and "This Old Heart Of Mine" for the Isley Brothers. Greatest achievement was working with Stevie Wonder on many of his hits. We'll close with one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTIGHT")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Baby, everything is all right, uptight, out of sight. Baby, everything is all right, uptight, out of sight.

I'm a poor man's son, from across the railroad tracks. The only shirt I own is hanging on my back. But I'm the envy of every single guy 'cause I'm the apple of my girl's eye. When we go out stepping on the town for a while, my money's low, and my suit's out of style.

But it's all right if my clothes aren't new - out of sight - because my heart is true. She says, baby, everything is all right, uptight, out of sight. Baby, everything is all right, uptight... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.