Saturday, May 24, 2014

Series-wide thoughts on FX's "Justified" (through season 4)

File:Justified 2010 Intertitle.png

For some reason, I didn't notice FX's "Justified" when it premiered back in 2010, which is strange because it's based on a short story and novels by Elmore Leonard, and for a while, I read pretty much every Leonard novel as soon as it was published.

But anyway, it wasn't until I got my Kindle Fire and started checking out various serialized action/dramas for treadmill entertainment that I discovered it. I watched the pilot and was immediately hooked (although I did end up making a detour for another FX series, "The Shield"). Suffice to say that "Justified" has provided plenty of treadmill entertainment/distraction the past few months.

The premise of "Justified" is that Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, played perfectly by Timothy Olyphant, grew up in the coal-mining environs of Harlan, Kentucky but left and at the beginning of the series is based in Miami. He tracks down a mobster and gives the mobster 24 hours to get out of town, and when 23 hours and 50 or so minutes have elapsed, Givens shows up on the penthouse balcony to confront the man. Naturally, the mobster tries to shoot Givens secretly, but we learn that Givens is a very fast draw. When Givens' boss criticizes him about the shooting ("You know we haven't shot anyone on sight in about a hundred years, right?"), Givens' drawls in response, "He drew first, so I was justified."

Justified or not, Givens gets sent very far away from Miami, specifically, to Lexington, Kentucky, which is the biggest city near Harlan. This pleases neither Givens nor his new boss, Chief Deputy U.S. Marshall Art Mullen, who knows Givens personally and by reputation. From then on, a large part of the show deals with Givens' interactions with people from his past, including his criminal father Arlo; his one-time coal mining friend/now white supremacist Boyd Crowder; his ex-wife Winona (a court reporter); Ava Crowder, Boyd's sister-in-law who once (and still) harbored a big crush on Givens when she was a teenager; and other assorted motley characters.

Each of the first four seasons of "Justified" has focused on a continuing storyline that often dominates the episodes in serialized fashion, though the first season had a number of standalone episodes. There's enough violence to satisfy action fans, but what the show excels in is whipsmart dialogue that sometimes gets paid back with interest in subsequent episodes. The example I love is in one episode, Givens stares down a Detroit gangster in the gangster's RV and says, "The next time we have a conversation, there's not going to be a conversation." A few episodes later, a colleague drags a clearly reluctant Givens to see the same gangster. When pressed about his reluctance, Givens explains what he said previously. The colleague says, "He's not going to remember that conversation, and if he does, just say it's a different conversation." When the marshals show up at the RV, the gangster steps out and the first thing he says is, "Deputy Givens, I seem to recall the last time we met, you told me," and here he does a deadpan impression of Givens, "'The next time we have a conversation there's not going to be a conversation.'" Givens looks momentarily annoyed and then drawls, "This is a different conversation." This gag gets played out further down the line....

Anyway, one of the pitfalls that often (but always) befall successful shows is that as they age, they find it harder and harder to be as fresh and relevant as they once were. Serialized shows are particularly susceptible to this, with a tendency to collapse slowly from the weight of their complex mythologies. "The X-Files," "Lost," and "Battlestar Galactica" are prime examples. The alien/government conspiracy arc of "The X-Files" made sense for about three seasons and then fell apart as it became clear that Agent Scully must have had the sensory perception of Helen Keller if she doubted the existence of aliens. "Lost" lasted longer but the less said about the last season's "sideways" world, the better.

That's why I'm impressed that, through the first four seasons, "Justified" has remained tightly written, funny when it should be, tense when it should be, and compelling. ("The Shield" was the same way, so maybe FX is on to something.)

"Justified" just finished its fifth season, but that's not available on Amazon Prime yet. I do have most of the episodes on my TiVo, but unfortunately, four of the earlier episodes got deleted to make room for other recordings, so I'm in a bit of a quandary. Do I wait to watch it intact, or start now with what I have and fill in the missing episodes later?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Dang. Lost a comment.

    Justified is one of my favorite shows, and one of the very few I've ever made it a point to watch without fail from beginning to end.

    On the S5 question, I'd wait. A lot goes on in those first four episodes. FWIW, I think S5 was very satisfying, although not as strong as the prior two. (Mags Bennett and Robert Quarles set the bar high.)

    Did you know S5 was the penultimate season? One more to go, and you can guess what that arc will be. The final showdown is nigh.

    I couldn't imagine getting rid of cable, and being reduced to watching shows like Justified months later. I need to see it NOW, and the risk of spoilers would haunt me.

    1. Thanks -- I guess I'll follow your advice. Fortunately, I've now got "The Wire" to stream, so hopefully season 5 of "Justified" will be available by then.