By Jeff Michael Vice

FARGO – Live-action drama developed by Noah Hawley, based on characters created by Joel and Ethan Coen; rated TV-MA; airs Tuesdays on FX; 60 minutes (approximately). Episode 1.2: “The Rooster Prince” (original airdate, April 22, 2014). Directed by Adam Bernstein; written by Noah Hawley (9 out of 10)

The story so far: Nomadic, hired killer Lorne Malvo winds up in the frozen northeast after crashing his vehicle into a deer. He’s left a trail of dead bodies in his wake, and not just that of the poor animal in question. Meanwhile, born loser Lester Nygaard suffers abuse -- from both his verbally demonstrative wife, Pearl, as well as his childhood bully, local businessman Sam Hess. And Bemidji, Minn. police officer Molly Solverson suddenly finds herself thrust into the role of murder investigator, thanks to Malvo’s recent actions.

In this episode: Malvo next turns up in nearby Duluth, Minnesota, where he’s been asked to look into extortion of local supermarket kingpin and motivational speaker, Stavros Milos. Meanwhile, Lester keeps finding reminders of role he played in the death of his wife, his longtime nemesis and the town’s beloved police chief, Vern Thurman. And speaking of the murders, Molly has taken the lead in the case, and is doggedly pursuing Lester, whose story just doesn’t add up.

In several ways, the second episode more than lives up to the high standards of the show’s first, which was one of the best series debuts in recent history.

“The Rooster Prince” still concentrates on the three main characters, as well as Duluth police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), who’s still haunted by his chilling encounter with a fleeing, threatening Malvo. And introduces a few more, including Mr. Numbers and his silent partner, Mr. Wrench, a pair of enforcers who have come to Bemidji to deal with the whoever killed the well-connected Sam Hess. (It was Malvo who did the deed, in a seedy strip club, after having his own “Strangers on a Train” moment with Lester.)

As for Lester, he keeps crossing paths with Molly, who’s got a series of questions for him. Unfortunately, her new boss – the seemingly inept, acting chief Bill Oswalt (“Breaking Bad’s” Bob Odenkirk) – orders her to leave her prime suspect alone, and concentrate on his theoretical, homicidal drifter instead.

 

And a clearly irritable Malvo has to deal with the demanding Stavros and his peeved right-hand man, as well as an all-too-obvious, would-be blackmailer who’s left some pretty clear-cut evidence behind.

The small-screen “Fargo” features one of the best casts on the small screen. In addition to Thornton – already a sure Emmy nominee for his work as the acerbic killer – it also gets strong performances from both Freeman and the fresh-faced Tolman. (That’s not meant to slight the supporting cast members like Hanks and Keith Carradine, who plays Molly’s father, or the guest stars, who include character actor Oliver Platt as the intended extortion victim, and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” cast member Glenn Howerton as his dim-witter blackmailer.)

By the way, the show takes place 20 years after the events depicted in the Coen brothers’ Oscar winning, darkly comic thriller. The Coens do serve as executive producers, though, and the series does have quite a few similarities, such as oddly named characters and a winningly endearing blend of mordant laughs juxtaposed with sudden, sometimes grotesque violence.

As directed by executive producer Adam Bernstein, a veteran with episodes of “Californication” and “Strangers with Candy” to his credit, “The Rooster Prince” also has an unsettling but quirky vibe that may remind some of the tone for much of David Lynch’s cultily adored “Twin Peaks” series.

Executive producer/show runner Noah Hawley supplied the episode’s script, which has more than enough memorable quips and line exchanges to balance out the darker story elements. Some of the better ones include:

“Your name’s Duluth?” (Unnamed postal worker)

“This is highly irregular.” “No, highly irregular is time I found a human foot in a toaster oven. This is just odd.” (Unnamed postal worker, then Malvo)

“What if you’re right and they’re wrong?” (Motivational poster)

“I know about the money. Pay me $43,613 or I tell the world.” (Extortion note)

“That’s a pretty specific number … “ (Malvo)

“Look, I can find the guy. The question is what you want done with him when he’s found.” (Malvo)

“Sorry. I just bronzed.” (Chumph)

Overall rating: 9 out of 10

CAST:

The regular characters: Billy Bob Thornton (Lorne Malvo), Allison Tolman (Molly Solverson), Martin Freeman (Lester Nygaard), Colin Hanks (Gus Grimly), Bob Odenkirk (Bill Olson) and Keith Carradine (Lou Solverson)

Guest stars: Joshua Close (Gordon Nygaard), Adam Goldberg (Mr. Numbers), Russell Harvard (Mr. Wrench), Glenn Howerton (Don Chumph), Joey King (Greta Grimly) and Oliver Platt (Stavros Milos)

You can read Jeff Michael Vice, aka Jerk-bot, at Cinephiled (www.cinephiled.com),where he writes movie reviews and film-related articles. He can be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff), and be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com).

Previous Post: Spielberg to direct 'The BFG'

Next Post: 'Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal' Voice Cast Announced

Tags: television reviews , FX Networks , Coen brothers , Fargo , Billy Bob Thornton