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It is a challenge to describe just how astonishingly good it is, the second season of Fargo (FX Canada, 10 p.m.). But let's have a go.

First, let's take the measure of the project. A couple of years ago, when it was announced that FX would air an anthology series derived from the Coen brothers' movie, the possibility of it soaring to any creative heights seemed far-fetched. The movie is much-loved, the tone of it precise and rare.

And then Fargo the series arrived, the work of screenwriter and novelist Noah Hawley. It had the stamp of approval from the Coen brothers. And no wonder. The series was not a homage to the story but an entirely new fiction drenched in the original's tone and then taken to another level. It occupied a dream-like space, set in the harsh Minnesota winter.

There was a Marge Gunderson-like character in Allison Tolman's anxious but diligent cop Molly Solverson, but Molly was not the pivotal character. That was Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a craggy contract killer who might not be real at all, but a perambulating force of evil; the evil that lay dormant inside the people of a small community. As such, there was a magic-realism quality to it, all the more unnerving for being anchored in the snowy wastes of winter. Fargo won several Emmy Awards, deservedly.

Second, you don't have to have seen the first season to enjoy and savour this one. It's all new, with new characters and actors and a new setting in time and history. What it shares is the ambition of its creators and a devotion to cooking up a remarkable blend of comedy, drama and tragedy. It is also, like the first season, about malevolence infecting a small community, discharging greed and requiring people's best instincts to triumph over evil.

The setting is the mid-1970s. Jimmy Carter is trying to grapple with post-Vietnam America. There is an oil crisis. Cult religions bloom. Ronald Reagan – who is a player in this drama – is on the fringes but about to enter the national drama. Strange days indeed.

Minnesota State Trooper Lou (Patrick Wilson), a Vietnam vet, is a thoughtful, diligent man, married to Betsy (Cristin Milioti) who is the daughter of Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson). They have a daughter, Molly, whom we gather will grow up to be cop Molly Solverson. Betsy has cancer and wields an acid tongue. Asked by Lou if she's okay with putting Molly to bed, Betsy scoffs and says, "It's okay, she's not Pol Pot."

Meanwhile, unknown to most, there's a gang war going on. The Kansas City mob, city slickers, want to own the crime racket run in Minnesota by the Gerhardt family. The Gerhardt patriarch (played by Canadian Michael Hogan) is incensed and has a stroke. Son Rye (Kieran Culkin) has notions about being a great, ruthless gangster and sets out to take care of a problem.

What ensues, an incident of horrific mayhem at an isolated Waffle Hut, is the stunning centrepiece of the first few hours. It is breathtakingly done, visually and dramatically. The languid sensibility of local cops is captured in Sheriff Hank gazing upon the bloodshed and sighing, "Well, this is a deal."

Woven into the story are local hairdresser Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) and her gravely impassive husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons), who works happily at the local butcher. Peggy (superbly played by Dunst) is a stew of simmering ambitions and, well, when bad things happen, who knows where her instincts will take her?

Summed up, and rising to the challenge to describe its greatness, Fargo is superbly done. You will be enraptured by its recklessness in tone – profoundly humane, even deeply humorous, yet nightmarish, violent and haunted. And delivered by the writers and cast with an achingly beautiful skill.

Also airing tonight

Do check out This Life (CBC, 9 p.m.). It started last week and isn't a ratings hit, though it should be. A woman, Natalie Lawson (Torri Higginson), is told her cancer has returned. The drama is about the impact on her family and friends but this is no weeper melodrama and really, it's about grasping life and living it to the full. It is touching, sweet and nicely captivating.