Sunday, August 22, 2010

Justified: Portrait of a 21st Century Lawman

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 22, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


There are some TV shows that come out of the gate with such polish and promise that from the very first episode you know you’re watching something special. Justified is one of those shows. Based on Elmore Leonard’s 2002 short story “Fire in the Hole,” Justified premiered on the FX network on March 16th, ran for 13 episodes, and ended with an explosive season finale on June 8th. Already, it's shaping up to be one of FX’s most consistently solid series since The Shield. A second season has been ordered for 2011. (It airs on Super Channel HD in Canada.)

The show follows Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant) from Miami back to Harlan, the rural Eastern Kentucky coal-mining town where he grew up. On the heels of a much-publicized shooting incident, Givens reluctantly leaves behind investigations of international drug cartels to face the problems and people he happily left years earlier. Though the story is set firmly in 2010, when we first see Olyphant, you may be hard-pressed to distinguish Givens from Sheriff Seth Bullock, the character he played for three seasons on David Milch’s Deadwood on HBO: they’re both men with well-defined, albeit personal, codes of justice, men who don’t draw their guns unless they intend to use them. Wearing a white Stetson above the stoic and squinting expression of an old West lawman, Givens is a man out of time, or more precisely, a man out of genre. From the Emmy-nominated song playing over the credits (a track by Gangstagrass, a New York-based band known for a unique brand of bluegrass/hip-hop fusion), the tone is set. The show is itself a mash-up—the old West with crystal meth and Smartphones, the story of a 19th century man with a 21st century life.

Elmore Leonard
Justified was created and produced by Graham Yost (creator of NBC’s critically-acclaimed and short-lived Boomtown, and more recently a writer/director of The Pacific on HBO). Yost also wrote the pilot episode, following closely the story and dialogue of Elmore Leonard’s original story. While Leonard’s work has had a number of successful big screen adaptations—Get Shorty (1995), Jackie Brown (1997) and Out of Sight (1998), until now, the small screen has largely eluded him. (ABC aired Karen Sisco, a TV series centered on the same character Jennifer Lopez played in Out of Sight, for just 10 episodes in 2003-2004.)

Raylan Givens, the main character of “Fire in the Hole,” initially appeared in Leonard’s novels Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995). Though the FX series only claims ownership of the short story, over the course of the first season it drew frequently on the back story and even the dialogue from the earlier novels. Leonard is also on-board as executive producer for the series, and the show often retains the wit and pacing of his best written work, mixing action with smart dialogue and low-key—and sometimes laugh-out-loud—comedy.

Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens
More character-focused than most cop procedurals, Justified is ultimately a show about people, about the choices they make and the relationships they hold fast to. There are no DNA samples, no fingerprint analyses, and even very few moments of old-fashioned deductive reasoning. The investigative element usually involves Givens walking around, knocking on doors, and making his presence known until someone comes out shooting. For all of the moral certainty of his character, Givens’ on-screen portrayal is a lot more flawed than in Leonard’s original story, and this season demonstrates that he often makes some rather questionable decisions. A lot of the credit for this complexity goes to Olyphant’s performance; he’s capable of making ordering a glass of bourbon an act of deep psychological ambivalence. Despite his surface calm, Givens is a portrait of barely-contained anger whose strategy—in life and on the job—seems to be to keep pushing buttons until something explodes. As his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) tells him at the end of the pilot episode: "You do a good job of hiding it … but honestly, you are the angriest man I've ever known." If his actions ultimately result in an arrest, it is often as much about dumb luck as it is investigative know-how.

In this way, Givens’ character is more than just a throwback to the old Westerns; it is also reminiscent of the hard-boiled detectives of the novels of the 30s and 40s. Perhaps it is a credit to the well-drawn characters of Leonard’s fiction, but this series made it dramatically clear to me just how much the heroes of the old West resemble the ‘heroes’ of the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Chandler’s Marlowe and Hammett’s anonymous ‘Continental Op’ may not have badges, but they both base their actions on a deep-set sense of right and wrong. The best of those stories reveal just how destructive the actions, both intentional and unintentional, of a single person can be on a small, insulated community. And shows like Justified may well be the face of the new noir for the time being. Los Angeles has grown far too large and sprawling for the Dickensian intricacy of a story (and film) like The Big Sleep, but the town of Harlan, Kentucky is just the right size for the overlapping biographies, familial betrayals, and childhood loyalties that that kind of narrative requires. By the end of the season, the status quo of Harlan might not be as much in ruins as Personville’s (or ‘Poisonville’ as it was known to the denizens of Hammett’s Red Harvest), but it comes pretty darn close.

Walter Goggins as Boyd Crowder
Fortunately, as compelling as Olyphant is, this is by no means a one-man show. Justified boasts an ensemble of quirky and sympathetic secondary characters, and (just as you would expect from Elmore Leonard) bad guys who are always more complex than you’d expect them to be. At the top of that list is the character of Boyd Crowder, played by Walter Goggins, formerly Detective Shane Vendrell on FX’s The Shield. Originally meant to die in the first episode, Crowder ultimately becomes one of the most fascinating characters on the show, and perhaps on any show this season. Goggins’ turn as Boyd, alternately a southern militia white supremacist and Neo-Nazi thug who evolves into a Christian born-again zealot reformer and, well, criminal, takes this show to new heights. At times both profoundly sympathetic and terrifying cold-blooded—often in the same scene—Goggins is more than a match for the seething intensity of Olyphant’s Raylan Givens. (Season 2 will see Goggins promoted to series regular, and I can’t wait see how that will play out.)

Though in its earlier episodes Justified was more episodic than FX’s other recent mainstays (like Rescue Me or Damages), this first season built deliberately towards a more serialized, four-episode arc which reached a wholly satisfying conclusion. Even when the show grew darker and its villains more dangerous, Justified never ceased to be entirely compelling, consistently entertaining, and just plain fun. This is definitely one of the strongest new shows of 2010.