FARGO. 10 tonight, FX.


JANE THE VIRGIN. 9 tonight, CW57.

The first season of FX's "Fargo" wasn't a fluke.

What a relief.

Because despite the Peabody and the Emmys and all the critical acclaim, there was no way to be sure that Noah Hawley's vision of a TV show that embraced the spirit of the Coen brothers' classic could work beyond 10 episodes.

As Season 2 begins tonight, without Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman or any of the actors who helped make Season 1 one of last year's best shows, "Fargo" goes where HBO's "True Detective" didn't - to a second story and cast of characters as compelling as its first.

I'm only four episodes in, but I'm thinking it might turn out to be even better.

Which would be extraordinary.

Because, for all their advantages, including the ability to attract actors who might not be able to commit to multiple seasons, anthology series are a high-wire act for their creators, who can't skate on an audience's affection for particular characters.

Hawley's cheated just a tad, pulling a thread from his first season with a 1979-set prequel in which Keith Carradine's Lou Solverson is a Minnesota state trooper (now played by Patrick Wilson) working a case we know will haunt him into 2006.

Lou's married to Betsy (Cherry Hill's Cristin Milioti), the daughter of Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), the county sheriff, and the mother of 6-year-old Molly, whom Tolman played as an adult.

The incident that brings Lou and Hank out to the local Waffle Hut on an icy night and triggers a series of unfortunate events may be scarier than anything that happened in Season 1 because, like the cancer growing in Molly's mother, Betsy, it seems plausible.

There's no vaguely supernatural big bad to take the place of Thornton's Lorne Malvo - though keep your eyes peeled for the UFO - just a widening circle of characters whose motives aren't mysterious but whose interactions may prove deadly.

Kirsten Dunst is scary good (and nearly unrecognizable) as Luverne, Minn., salon employee Peggy Blumquist, a tightly wound bundle of vague ambitions married to a butcher's assistant named Ed (Jesse Plemons, in a role that may evoke memories of a certain "Friday Night Lights" story line).

Though she's seen only briefly in tonight's premiere, Jean Smart delivers a beautifully calibrated performance as the stoic matriarch of a North Dakota crime family whose husband (Michael Hogan) has suffered a stroke and whose youngest son (Kieran Culkin) has gone missing just as the family's trying to fend off a takeover by the Kansas City mob, represented here by Brad Garrett and Bokeem Woodbine.

In a freighted encounter with Danson's sheriff in next week's episode, Woodbine's Mike Milligan manages to remind us how much the world was changing in 1979 and, maybe, how much that change has stalled.

It's not quite morning in America, but Ronald Reagan is approaching the horizon - tonight's episode, "Waiting for Dutch," begins on the set of a fake Reagan film, "The Sioux Falls Massacre."

The title's a callback to the case that's brought "Fargo" to '79, and Reagan himself, played by Bruce Campbell, is scheduled to appear later this season.

We already know where he's headed, but if the second coming of "Fargo" proves anything, it's that getting there is at least half the fun.

'Crazy,' 'Virgin'

Some shows have to be seen to be believed.

That was the case last season with the CW's "Jane the Virgin," an improbably charming series about, yes, a virgin (Gina Rodriguez) who's accidentally inseminated during what's supposed to be a routine doctor's visit.

"Jane" returns tonight in a Season 2 premiere that combines the outlandishness of its telenovela roots with the most educational treatment of breast-feeding I've seen on any TV show ever, and the CW's given it an improbable (and charming) lead-in.

"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" stars Rachel Bloom as Rebecca, a New York lawyer who, after a chance meeting with her summer-camp sweetheart, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), chucks it all to stalk, er, follow him to West Covina, Calif. Did I mention it's a musical? Scared yet?

You should be. Bloom's tribute "West Covina" - filmed on location at an outdoor mall there - is a total earworm, and Bloom, who originally made the pilot for Showtime, could prove equally hard to shake.