There’s something grimly fascinating about watching a once great series go bad, even if it’s a series you love. Sometimes it can happen startlingly fast.
he opening season of Homeland — which, believe it or not, was a decade ago this year — was a masterclass in gut-knotting tension and suspense, brilliantly written, directed and acted.
It was flawless, up until that final episode ruined everything.
Had it been a miniseries that ended with Brody blowing himself and everyone around him to pieces with the suicide bomb he’d strapped to his chest, it would have gone down in history as a bold, daring piece of television with the courage to push its story to a bleakly logical conclusion.
But, like Brody, Homeland bottled it. It slogged on through a few alternately ludicrous and tedious seasons, before turning, post-Brody, into an espionage series quite different to and far less interesting than the one it started out as. The Handmaid’s Tale is an even worse case.
Having used up the whole of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel in the first season, it has been chasing its tail ever since.
Shooting on season four was delayed by Covid-19, so it won’t be arriving until the autumn. It’s possible The Handmaid’s Tale will enjoy a temporary bounce from the dystopian turn the real America has taken in the last couple of months, and particularly in the last couple of weeks. But really: enough already.
Anthology series have a better chance of staying the course. Because every season is a complete do-over, previous mistakes can be rectified.
Look at True Detective. Season one kept viewers riveted and sent critics scrambling for one superlative after another.
Season two, which tried to do something different, was widely regarded as a major let-down, although I’ll always maintain it was a perfectly fine series that became the victim of a grossly unfair critical pile-on.
If True Detective 2 had been True Detective 1, the same critics would have been falling over one another to praise it. In any case, the third season, which largely aped the multiple timelines formula of the first one, saw True Detective back in the good books.
This brings us to season four of Fargo, currently showing on TG4. Tonight’s episode is the third, although I’m lucky enough to have seen a few more than that.
Long delayed by a combination of creator Noah Hawley’s preoccupation with his other series, Legion, and the disruption caused by Covid, this season is the first to fall below expectations.
It’s not terrible, by any means. The performances are generally fine — although Chris Rock, as African-American gang leader Loy Cannon — seems a little ill at ease.
The production values, always high, are even higher this time. Creating a vision of 1950s America as dazzling as this doesn’t come cheap.
But there’s something a little off about it all. Fargo has always specialised in quirky characters; yet someone like Jessie Buckley’s weird, murderous nurse Oraetta Mayflower, an oddball angel of death, is pretty much all quirk and no character.
One thing you could never previously call Fargo was ordinary. Any series that can get away with dropping a UFO into a scene without any explanation, as it did in season two, yet still retain its credibility, is definitely not your average TV show. And yet, ordinary is what this Fargo feels.
The gang war plot at the core of it, while spiked with the usual black comedy and eccentricities, is unremarkable.
Racism is a major theme. But Fargo has been eclipsed by two other boldly imaginative series, Watchmen and Lovecraft Country.
They incorporated the history of racism in the US into far more fantastical settings — the worlds of comic book superheroes and supernatural monsters — and in far more imaginative ways.
There was a gap of three years between this season of Fargo and the previous one. Maybe Hawley lost heart.
Fargo is on TG4 at 10.30pm, January 19