When it comes to logical television partnerships, Elmore Leonard and FX are as perfect a match as Jerry Bruckheimer & CBS or Jay Leno & NBC. They’re made for each other and they deserve each other.
The new FX drama “Justified,” which finds Graham Yost expanding on a character created by Leonard, is just the latest installment in the cable network’s consistent commitment to badassery.
FX’s heroes all seem to be outlaws, whether they’re working inside the system (think Patty Hewes or Vic Mackey) or way outside (the bikers of “Sons of Anarchy”), whether they’re challenging conventional standards of beauty (the now departed surgeons of “Nip/Tuck”) or conventional standards of decency (the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” gang). We root for these anti-heroes on TV, even if we might become truly uncomfortable spending time with them in the real world. They’re charismatic, but dangerous. And they’re much more interesting than most of the other characters on the small screen.
They’re the sort of characters that Leonard has made a career out of writing, charmingly amiable criminals and chillingly disconnected lawmen, tough-talking women and colorfully profane men.
The pilot for “Justified” shows the potential for greatness and although later episodes might temper those expectations a tiny bit, FX’s latest still looks like one of the spring’s best scripted dramas.
[Full review after the break…]
Timothy Olyphant, who already earned his revisionist Western bona fides on “Deadwood,” plays Raylan Givens, a deputy U.S. marshall with a peculiar sense of justice. Actually, Givens’ sense of justice is only peculiar if you happen to believe we live in 2010. Born and raised in the coal belt of eastern Kentucky, Givens wears a white Stetson and cowboy boots and when if he draws on you, you’re probably dead.
After an incident in Miami, Givens is sent back to Kentucky, swept under the rug. And he’s forced to deal with his past, including ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and Boyd (Walton Goggins), an ex-best friend who now robs banks.
It’s not that Givens is a particularly original creation, the taciturn lawman with a clouded past is a trope for a good reason. The original comes from transporting this character, who usually would await the coming of a stagecoach or duel varmints outside of a saloon, and bringing him into the present day where, as you’d imagine, he sticks out. This isn’t some sort of “Encino Man”-style lark with a 1870s sheriff getting thawed out in the present day, but he’s a man who lives by a incongruous moral code.
Though his career has been characterized by a lot of the wrong roles, Olyphant is a tremendously compelling actor. It’s not that he thrives only on minimalism (his whack-job performance in “The Girl Next Door” is cartoonish, but hilarious), but he gets a lot out of a little. In that sense, this is a far more understated character than a Vic Mackey or a Patty Hewes. Those performances are all about kinetic energy. Olyphant’s performance is about potential energy, or potential violence. The opening scene of the pilot establishes what the character is capable of and you watch everything else he does through that lens, just waiting. And Olyphant does “intense and coiled” to perfection.
Part of the fun in “Justified” is seeing how other people view Givens.
Noting his proclivities for violence, Givens’ new boss Art (Nick Searcy) observes, “Put it like this: If you was in the first grade and you bit somebody every week, they’d start to think of you as a biter.”
Givens is a biter, but within his code, every time he bites, he’s justified. What made the character the way he is will probably unfold the longer he’s home and the show’s main thesis unfolds in a beautifully written pilot-closing conversation Givens and Winona.
One of the pleasures of the pilot is watching the very different acting styles of the internalized and clenched Olyphant and the loose, expressive and electric Goggins. Put those two together in a scene and the friction is instantaneous.
The pilot of “Justified” is so terrific, so full of vivid characters, meaty dialogue and a clear sense of place that you want to hail the show as TV’s next great drama. The two subsequent episodes sent to critics just aren’t on that level.
They’re solid, meat-and-potatos procedural storytelling with a great character at the center, driven by slightly better-than-average case-of-the-week plotting. It’s amazing that one episode was enough for me to care deeply about the people from Givens’ past, but the two later episodes didn’t come close to making me care about the people in his present, the usual assortment of semi-generic bosses and co-workers in the U.S.M.S. Lexington office.
The second and fourth episodes, the ones sent to critics, are presumably about allowing “Justified” to find its own voice. There isn’t enough Leonard source material for an ongoing story to rely solely on the maestro’s plotting and dialogue. The second episode, written by Yost and directed by pilot helmer Michael Dinner, is almost disappointingly generic, but it has connections to the unfolding story from the pilot. The fourth episode, in contrast, is almost completely stand-alone but it has a plot and characters who feel appropriately Leonard-esque, without going all copycat. I find that to be encouraging and that’s definitely more than enough for me to recommend “Justified,” but not enough for me to commit to the level of hyperbole I was feeling after the pilot. I still think there’s a great chance for the show to follow-through on the promise of the pilot and I’m awaiting additional episodes to see for sure.
“Justified” premieres on FX at 10 p.m. on Tuesday (March 16) night.