Welcome to The Roundup! You’ve stumbled upon a special type of post where I provide mini-reviews of shows I’ve been watching. As much as I wish I could, I just don’t have time to give every show I watch a full write-up. So this is my attempt at a compromise. Going forward, my intent is to balance these mini-reviews with longer, more in-depth posts when I have the time. Each of the three shows I’ll be reviewing today more than merit discussion, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my thoughts on them.
Today, we’re taking a (spoiler-free) look at three shows that concluded their seasons this past week: American Gods, Better Call Saul, and Fargo. So without further ado, let’s dive in.
I had been eagerly anticipating this show ever since Starz greenlit the show way back in 2015. This excitement was bolstered by the fact that Bryan Fuller (who created NBC’s outstanding Hannibal) would be the showrunner. Fuller is a true master when it comes to visual storytelling, and I had heard great things about the Neil Gaiman novel upon which the show is based. Top that off with some incredible casting announcements and I was all in for this show. Heck, I even subscribed to Starz just to watch it.
Well, what we ended up getting wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped for.
The first season of American Gods was a frustrating exercise in beautiful visuals and meandering story. Most episodes failed to build any forward momentum in the plot while assaulting you with bizarre (and often beautiful) imagery. It felt to me like this season was functioning as one long prologue for what’s to come next. Spending eight episodes beating around the bush isn’t exactly a good storytelling tactic. The argument could be made that much of season one was necessary for establishing the characters and central conflict, however, I say it shouldn’t take a season for your show to get to what it’s really about. Top it all off with a rather anticlimactic season finale and you’ve got a rather frustrating season of TV.
That said, the saving grace of American Gods lies in two of its key actors.
First, you have the incomparable Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday, the mysterious man who recruits Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) to be his bodyguard. McShane is the king of scenery-chewing and he relishes every line that Wednesday gets to speak. Most of what he says is rather hollow, but man, does he make it sound awesome. Despite the fact that Wednesday’s true identity is hidden for the entire season, I just enjoyed the character, and now that the cat’s out of the bag I’m anxious to see where it goes next.
Then you have Emily Browning as Laura Moon, Shadow’s dead wife, who doesn’t stay dead for very long. Browning fills Laura with a fierce determination and a no-nonsense attitude that really drives the story forward. The season’s best two episodes “Git Gone”- and “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” basically function as a showcase for Browning and prove that, aside from McShane, she is the best asset the show has.
The cast is filled with amazing guest stars and supporting characters like Kristen Chenoweth, Gillian Anderson, Orlando Jones, Jeremy Davies, Peter Stormare, Cloris Leachman and so many more. Many of these actors only appear for brief moments but they use their limited screen time to make a real impression. The sheer quality of acting made up for many of my quips about the same. It’s an excellent group of actors, except for one key role.
Ricky Whittle is not doing a good job as Shadow Moon. He simply stands around and reacts (very inconsistently) to everything that is going on around him. He never does anything or makes any meaningful choice that affects how the plot progresses. We’ll see if that changes in season two.
I enjoyed most of American Gods but given how inconsistent the season was, it’s hard for me to recommend wholeheartedly. There were great moments and standout performances but nothing that made me say “Yes! This is why I’m watching this show,” which is a crying shame given how excited I was for it. I’ll stick around for season two but with much more tempered expectations.
Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul continued to show Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) slow descent into Saul Goodman with another incredible, beautiful, and heartbreaking season.
After Jimmy’s brother Chuck (Michael McKeen) recorded Jimmy admitting to a felony at the end of season two, much of the first half of the season involved the feud between the McGill brothers finally boiling over. This resulted in one of the best episodes the show has ever produced, “Chicanery,” where Jimmy and Chuck faced off in a Bar hearing to determine if Jimmy would be allowed to practice law. The tension was ratcheted up to 11 as each brother tried to outmaneuver the other. It’s heartbreaking to see two brothers so viciously tear into one another they way these two do.
Elsewhere, we follow Mike (Jonathan Banks) as he descends deeper into the Albuquerque underworld. Season three finally brings him face to face with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and brings us even closer to Breaking Bad. Having Gus back was great but neither Gus nor Mike are given a whole lot to do this season. What we do see (Mike tracking Gus down, Gus maneuvering his feud with Hector Salamanca) is great TV, but it doesn’t occupy much of the screen time. The thing is, having less Mike or Gus didn’t bother me all that much because Jimmy’s story was just so dang good.
Season three saw much of what tethered Jimmy to his good side be stripped away, his relationship with Chuck and his elder law practice among them.Watching him continue to sink to a place where he would eventually become Saul Goodman is heartbreaking. I like Jimmy! I don’t want him to become Saul but that’s just how this is going to end. With so many of his anchors gone, Jimmy tries so desperately to hold onto the one good thing he has, namely Kim Wexler (the incredible Rhea Seehorn).
Kim continues to be a well-drawn, compelling and empathetic character, and I so want her to make it out of all this alive. The problem is, that would mean something horrible would have to force her away from Jimmy, which is the last thing I want. You see my dilemma?
This season was truly top-notch, and it all culminated in a season finale that left me speechless and heartbroken. I won’t spoil it here, but you owe it to yourself to experience this show. It’s a different show from Breaking Bad but one that stands proudly beside it.
After the borderline improbable success of the first two seasons of Fargo, I was anxious to see what creator and showrunner Noah Hawley would do in the third season of this anthology drama.
Watching season three of Fargo was a complicated experience. The show once again assembled an all-star cast, this year consisting of Ewan McGregor, Carrie Coon, Mary Elizabeth Winsted, Michael Stuhlbarg and David Thewlis, but something was missing in the early episodes. The show felt too much like a retread of the previous two years with characters who too closely resembled ones from seasons past and a lack of forward momentum to the story. It was still Fargo, with the classic “Minnesota nice” dialogue and all the quirky characters we love, but it didn’t have the same spark.
I suspect part of that was due to the focus on Ewan McGregor’s dual role as feuding brothers (but not twins) Emmitt and Ray Stussy. Their feud drove a large portion of the first half of the season and simply did not have the same hook as Lorne Malvo’s manipulations in season one or the mob takeover in season two. McGregor gave a good performance as both brothers, but neither character was given proper depth until much later in the season.
Two early standouts in the cast were Carrie Coon and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as cop Gloria Burgle and ex-con Nikki Swango, respectively. Both actresses gave heartfelt performances and each of their characters had a fantastic arc. Gloria, dealing with her loss of place in the world and, Nikki trying to forge a future with Ray Stussy. Unfortunately (in the case of Coon especially), I felt both were woefully underused in the first half of the season.
That said, the final two episodes really brought the story home and gave it a satisfying conclusion. Much of season three of Fargo dealt with the notion of what happens when the world stops making sense, of the truth vs. the stories we tell ourselves and how murky and ephemeral the space between those two extremes can be. Many characters set themselves on paths because of stories they believed or found themselves adrift because what they thought to be true proved to be the opposite.
Based on interviews Hawley has given since the season ended, he doesn’t have an idea for a fourth season yet or even knows if he’ll ever do another one, and I’m ok with that. To create an entirely new story each year with new characters is a gargantuan task, and I completely understand Noah wanting to take a break. If this is the final season of Fargo, I’d be ok with that but if there were to be more, I’d watch it in a heartbeat.
Did you follow any of these shows this season? What did you think? Were you enthralled or annoyed by American Gods? Did you wish Gus and Mike had more to do in Better Call Saul? And how do you compare this season of Fargo with the previous two? Let me know in the comments!