The new season has a narrative thread connecting it to the first one, but it also has a trickier, more promising setup

Fargo’s Emmy-winning first season was a brilliant surprise: Billy Bob Thornton gave a comeback performance as villain Lorne Malvo, Allison Tolman gave a breakout one as policewoman Molly Solverson and the series as a whole fell only a few suspenseful shivers shy of HBO’s first season of True Detective.

We know now, of course, that True Detective in its second season daringly created new characters in a new mystery in a new place, and yet the only thing memorable about it was someone with a falcon mask and maybe Colin Farrell looking clammy and in need of an antacid.

But Fargo’s new season, which brings in a whole new cast and year (1979), looks very strong. Here’s what makes it tick.

1. Thinking Bigger

Like a second installment in a fantasy epic, season 2 widens and deepens the Fargo universe.

That peculiar realm is defined both by acts of uncontrolled, murderous violence and acts of random stupidity (they often overlap like discs in a Venn diagram, creating an intersection that resembles a pool of blood); by a comic, bumbling dullness (not to be confused with random stupidity – the cops on this show are plodding, but smart), and by a sense that the forces of wickedness are inherently much stronger than those of good.

If season 1 stuck closely to the original movie’s basic template, with a small-town businessman killing his wife, season 2 has a trickier, more promising setup that draws together drug-trafficking syndicates (one of them a truly Mom-and-Pop operation) and a hit-and-run accident that, unfortunately for everyone, is more like a hit-and-drag. And yet it remains fundamentally true to the absurd cruelty of the Coen Brothers’ movie. (Note, please, the severed foot being fed into a meat grinder.)

2. Kirsten Dunst

The large ensemble is as eclectic, warped and weird as the assorted objects you’d find arranged, without reason, in a dusty vitrine at the back of a junk shop: Ted Danson and Patrick Wilson (police), Jean Smart (one wintry half of that Mom-and-Pop operation), Jeffrey Donovan (her very surly son) and Nick Offerman (someone named Karl Weathers). But Dunst is, so far, the standout as beautician Peggy Blomquist, the young woman behind that hit-and-run.

Making a decision that could be described as lethally and even willfully careless, Peggy is a kind of film-noir variant, as are so many characters in the Coens’ catalog. She isn’t likable, but she’s sweet and her voice is a soft squeak. She might be pathetic, too, if she hadn’t so quickly turned her husband (Jesse Plemons) into an accomplice and a chump. He’s the pathetic one.

3. Connected, Not Constrained

The new season has a narrative thread connecting it to the first one – in some ways it’s a prequel – but you can start in on Fargo season 2 without having seen Fargo season 1. It’s so good, in fact, maybe you should.

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launches its second season Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.