The Swan Tunes In: Justified

I’m a notoriously tough hombre to convince of anything, but after a mere two episodes, I’m ready to say this straight out…

Justified is the best show on television right now.

The words “right now” are key to the above sentence, because TV’s best drama (and, not coincidentally, another FX series), Sons of Anarchy, is presently on hiatus. When Sons returns, it will give Justified a worthy challenge. Although, the nature of things being what it is, I’m guessing that FX will work it so that Justified will have completed its first season by the time Sons resurfaces for its fourth. No point in cluttering up the schedule with too much great TV.

In one key measure, Justified already surpasses Sons of Anarchy — its focus on one exceptionally conceived character. Sons, an ensemble drama with a ginormous cast, has a boatload of players and personalities to deal with each week, and its ostensible lead character, motorcycle gang leader Jackson “Jax” Teller, is rarely the most interesting element in the show. Justified has done a terrific job of populating its supporting cast, but they’re exactly that — supporting cast. Everything hinges on the man at the center of the action (and of almost every scene): Raylan Givens, Deputy United States Marshal, played to understated perfection by Timothy Olyphant.

The character of Raylan — adapted for TV from a trio of short stories by legendary thriller scribe Elmore Leonard — is a pastiche of several disparate elements. He’s one part Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (the cop whose philosophy is “Shooting’s all right, as long as the right people get shot”), one part Dennis Weaver’s McCloud (the Stetson-wearing, smarter-than-he-looks walking anachronism), and one part Tommy Lee Jones’s relentless Sam Gerard (from the films The Fugitive and U.S. Marshals). There’s also a lot in Raylan that’s pure Elmore Leonard, especially his penchant for pithy dialogue. Leonard can be a difficult author to translate to the screen, and to television in particular, but the creative team behind Justified hits all of the right notes, at least so far.

Here’s the set-up. While posted to the Marshal Service’s Miami field office (where his cowboy hat and boots make him as inconspicuous as a McDonald’s on the moon), Raylan’s latest gunning down of a suspect earns him a swift reassignment to a faraway jurisdiction — Harlan County, Kentucky, where Raylan was born and raised. (I wondered at first why the Marshals Service would maintain a presence in this hillbilly backwater. The reason became clear in the second episode: there’s a federal prison there — the U.S. Penitentiary at Big Sandy.) Raylan is less than enthused about his new station — he’d sworn when he left Harlan that he’d never return — but he accepts his medicine with wry resignation.

Moving to Harlan reunites Raylan with an old acquaintance, no-nonsense Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), and provides him a pair of junior associates, former Army Ranger Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) and tightly wound Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel). The move also places Raylan in uncomfortably close proximity to his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and his high school girlfriend Ava (Joelle Carter), who’s since married the brother of Raylan’s childhood pal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), now a small-time thug running a white supremacist gang. Raylan’s first case in his new/old digs brings him into conflict with Boyd, who thinks he may have an edge on his former friend, but is proven wrong. (“If you make me pull, I’ll put you down,” Raylan warns Boyd, who eventually makes him pull and gets put down, albeit not fatally.)

Justified works for two reasons. First, the writing (initially by Graham Yost, who developed the series with input from Elmore Leonard) is stellar. Second, Timothy Olyphant owns the lead role, taking a character that could veer off into shallow caricature and making him multilayered, conflicted, and believably human. Olyphant’s Raylan is no superman — he’s tough, cool, and beyond competent at what he does, but he gets outmaneuvered by the bad guys at times (even though he wins in the end) and is guilty of occasional grotesque lapses in judgment (while transporting a prisoner, Raylan lets the felon drive while he surfs the ‘Net on his iPhone, resulting in predictable misfortune). Most importantly for television, Olyphant makes Raylan compelling and likable, guaranteeing that viewers will keep tuning in to see what he does next.

(And — speaking strictly from a disinterested heterosexual male perspective, mind you — I suspect that many female audience members will find Mr. Olyphant easy on the eyes.)

Clearly, two episodes do not a Hall of Fame series make. It remains to be seen whether Olyphant, Yost and company can maintain — and continue to elevate — the high level of quality they’ve established to this point. The show is going to need to flesh out its remaining characters, who at this point are little better than names, faces, and attitudes. It also needs to find ways to keep Raylan’s off-the-job life interesting once the “hometown boy returns” storyline plays out.

But I’ll say this: I can’t recall the last time I enjoyed two hours of scripted television as much as I enjoyed the first two episodes of Justified. The creators of this show have bought themselves a ton of good will with their opening salvo. Now we’ll see whether they’ll build on it, or burn it.

Justified airs on FX Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. Your Uncle Swan gives it nine tailfeathers out of a possible ten, just in case he needs a feather to fan himself with when the action gets heated. If you like tough, hard-boiled drama, you should check it out.

(Caveat: As FX’s series often do, Justified pushes the envelope of adult content — language, violence, etc. — as far as basic cable and the FCC will permit. You’ve been warned.)

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4 Comments on “The Swan Tunes In: Justified”

  1. Craig Says:

    Haven’t seen the second episode yet [it sits waiting on the DVR], but the first lived up to expectations. After reading your review, my guess is the 2nd will as well.

    By the way, I agree with you about Sons of Anarchy!

    • SwanShadow Says:

      Craig: Like I said, two episodes is a small sample size. But they seem to be doing everything right so far.

      I was a late-comer to Sons of Anarchy. I missed most of the first season because I couldn’t believe I’d enjoy a TV show about a biker gang, starring Peg Bundy. Man, was I wrong. I was hooked from the first episode I watched.

      Justified gave me that same crack-like hook.

  2. Hilly Says:

    I’ve been so out of the TV Loop lately that I did not even know this exists! I shall try it right now because anything that surpasses SOA has got to be amazing!

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