This is one of those shows in which the opening music sets the tone for the whole series – Ganstagrass’s “Long Hard Times To Come,” a bizarre but perfect blend of hip hop and bluegrass. And the script and cinematography fall right into place – gritty contemporary sensibility mixed with old-time values. It’s as infectious a blend as anything on television.
The FX series, which returns Tuesday night at 10 for its fourth season, is not only the best adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s work, it’s a huge improvement of Leonard’s too-jokey writing. Leonard is an executive producer, but the “authorship” of the series belongs to Graham Yost, whose five senses are razor sharp – a sense of humor, a sense of place, a sense of style, a sense of mission and a sense of self.
And he is a consummate actor’s producer – Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins and Nick Searcy are all fine actors but on “Justified” they – and the rest of the cast – inhabit their roles as fully as on any series on television, including “Breaking Bad.”
So why isn’t it as well-known as “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” on AMC? I think some of it has to with the difference between AMC and FX, or at least people’s expectations of those two cable services. “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” exude quality, even when throats are being slit or friends and lovers are being betrayed. Even the humans on “The Walking Dead” have a defined sense of morality.
FX shows have a kind of Wild West feel to them. “Louie,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Shield.” Are they amoral? Or is the morality just harder to find? They’re discomfiting to a lot of people.
Which makes “Justified” the perfect FX series. On the face of it “Justified” is a contemporary cowboy series with a vigilante twist. Raylan Givens (Olyphant) is a U.S. Marshal who’s been reassigned from Miami, where he killed a Mafioso, perhaps entrapping him and setting up the ethical dynamic of justified action. He’s been sent back home to Harlan County, Ky., the scene of Barbara Kopple’s acclaimed documentary about a mine strike in the early ‘70s.
The change in scenery reunites him with a whole slew of fascinating characters – a former wife, a former boss, a former nemesis and a whole new batch of friends and enemies, lovers and haters. As he bends, and sometimes breaks, the law we’re always asking whether his actions are “justified” but we usually agree that they are. More curiously, we’re often asking the same thing about that old nemesis, Boyd Crowder (Goggins). There’s a logic and even an ethic to his low-down ways that kind of wins you over, particularly compared to the real no-goodniks on the show. It certainly won over Ava (Joelle Carter), who left Raylan when she suspected he was sniffing around his former wife.
It doesn’t hurt that Olyphant and Goggins have more charisma than the entire casts of most television shows and when the two of them meet, there’s some serious electricity going on.
So how does Raylan differ from video vigilantes, from Dirty Harry to Dexter? For one thing he’s the embodiment of Bob Dylan’s lyric, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” There’s also a lovability and a warmth to his interactions, particularly among social victims, that wins you over.
Plus he’s so damn cool. Whether talking to a hillbilly murderer or a corporate raider he not only seems always on the side of the angels, but a guy you’d like to have a beer with. Ladies would most likely have other activities in mind. He’s like a combination of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and James Garner in “Maverick.”
So here we are in Season Four with Raylan’s father, Arlo, in jail for murdering a police officer. The finale had the shocker that he thought he was aiming at Raylan. Raylan’s ex-wife has left, but she’s carrying his child and he has moved in with a bartender. Female, of course. Arlo’s still involved in a crime that Raylan is investigating while Boyd finds his drug money drying up because a Pentecostal minister is bringing all the addicts in the area to Jesus.
He starts out, though, chasing a fugitive and when he draws a gun on the guy in a parked car the hoodlum says that a U.S. Marshal isn’t about to shoot a man in cold blood. Raylan tells him he’s right and shoots the airbag container instead, trapping him.
Yost has a sense of mischief in his writing that fuels Raylan’s, though that shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of sophistication. Isaac Asimov, John Maynard Keynes and Alan Furst are all cited and it’s not mere name-dropping.
And it’s not all fun and games, either. When a prostitute says that she wants to turn to Jesus, too, Ava tells her “There ain’t no salvation for people like us.” The sense of desperation that affects the downtrodden is palpable, though there’s not a lot of sympathy for white trash bad guys. When one of them lights up a joint in front of the marshals Raylan says, “You do understand we’re U.S. Marshals?” To which Mr. Trash replies, “I got the glaucoma real bad.”
I got the addiction to “Justified” real bad. Welcome back, Raylan. You too, Boyd.
Here’s a preview:
And here’s the theme song: