TV Review: The First 3 Episodes of JUSTIFIED Starring Timothy Olyphant Are Fantastic

     March 16, 2010

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The work of Elmore Leonard has been adapted countless times for the cinemas to varying degrees of success–for every Out of Sight there are a couple of Be Cools.  On the small screen, Hollywood is 0 for 2–neither Karen Sisco or Maximum Bob (both based on Leonard stores) lasted more than a season.  And so, FX is tempting the fates with their newest hourlong, Justified.  Not only is protagonist Deputy U.S. marshal Raylan Givens derived from the author’s Fire in the Hole novella, but this particular Leonard adaptation dabbles in the Western, a genre which has not been truly viable on television since Gunsmoke ended the golden age of cowboys by signing off the airwaves in 1975. My review after the jump:

Timothy Olyphant and Joelle Carter in Justified.jpgIn tackling such a feat, creator Graham Yost (Boomtown) made the very intelligent move of recruiting Timothy Olyphant, star of TV’s last great (if niche) Western, Deadwood.  Whether Justified can revitalize the genre for mainstream audiences remains to be seen, but the first three episodes suggest it will be a thing of beauty to watch the show try.

The three-minute cold open of the pilot is flawless.  The standoff between lawman and crook offers an immaculate show-don’t-tell introduction to our hero as it encapsulates the catalyst for the entire narrative.  Raylan, easily identified by his trademark Stetson and worn cowboy boots, sits across from a fugitive poolside at a Miami hotel.  The man pulls his gun, but Raylan pulls his quicker, and shoots to kill.  While Raylan repeatedly insists that the shot was “justified” (hey, that’s the title!), it lands him in hot water with his superiors.  As a result, Raylan is reassigned to Lexington, near his old stomping grounds of a small town in eastern Kentucky.

Olyphant does wonders with the wry, stoical charm of his character.  As he kills someone in the opening minutes of the show, you may surmise that the depiction tends toward antihero, but he’s nowhere near as flashy as his flawed FX peers, such as Vic Mackey of The Shield or Patty Hewes on Damages.  His dialogue is defined by its economy; whether negotiating a hostage situation or tossing off a one-liner, Raylan bluntly expresses himself with nary an extraneous word.

Walton Goggins Justified TV show image FX.jpgThe supporting characters manage well in keeping up with Olyphant’s inherent charisma.  Jacob Pitts gets off some great lines in his limited screen time as a fellow deputy, and I really look forward to seeing the character development of Erica N. Tazel, a black female entrenched in the white male world of Kentucky law enforcement.  Still, the depiction of all the good guys of Justified is marked by subtlety.  It seems the dramatic thrust will stem from the comparably audacious fugitive of the week, as in three episodes, the show provides three villains for Raylan et al. to chase down.  Shield star Walton Goggins nearly steals the show in his role as rocket launcher-wielding neo-Nazi, Boyd.  As Raylen and Boyd have a history together, there is a hint that Goggins is in line for a recurring role on Justified: very good news, indeed.

True to the darkest nature of the Western, Justified is steeped in moral ambiguity, though most of the depicted Kentuckians seem unimpressed.  Kidnapping, robbery, rape, insurance fraud, incest, racism, unwanted dental extraction, and murder (especially murder!) are among the debauchery greeted with indifference.  In particular, many a bullet flies through the first three hours of Justified, though no shot seems to keep any of our characters up at night: not the marshal, not the neo-Nazi, not the thief, not the abused housewife, not the dentist . . .

That Justified doesn’t seem to own a soapbox can definitely be counted in the “pro” column.  The characters own the dubious world they inhabit, in doing so selling its existence to the audience.  The juxtaposition ensures that the show is always fresh and surprising, even when playing with the classic tropes of the Western tale.

Justified premieres on Tuesday, March 16 at 10/9c on FX.

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