Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Appointment Television: Justified

Recently, during a stimulated conversation over drinks after work, a co-worker genially called me a television snob. I own up to it without compunction. I prefer television with high concepts, good writing, and stellar performances. I don't like tricks or clichés or very special episodes or pandering. I like something that's going to challenge me, that expects me to get the joke regardless of its reference points, that uses adult words and responses to potentially real situations or at least real to the world the show inhabits.

This doesn't mean that I don't adore "stupid" T.V. I usually get hooked into genre shows that may not appear at first glance to fit my snobbish preferences. And I like silly stuff too – you can never have enough of the silly in your life. But even that which might seem marginalized or ridiculous usually has more at its core than what might be seen in its pitch. Like Buffy or pretty much anything written by Joss Whedon. Or Burn Notice – smart, clever, and fun with things that go boom. Or Chuck – smart, clever, very funny, often silly, occasionally outrageous, and utterly geektastic.

Justified is not silly, or marginalized, or even remotely ridiculous. It is, however, absolutely fantastic.

Justified follows U.S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens. Raylan is of the shot to-kill-school of fugitive retention, though he will give fair warning before he does so. In the pilot episode, Raylan has given a known Bad Guy 24 hours to clear out of Miami, where Raylan is stationed, or he, Raylan, will kill him, Bad Guy. Of course said Bad Guy doesn't go anywhere and Raylan confronts him pool-side of a swanky Miami hotel. Faster on the drawn, Raylan kills Bad Guy, a justified shoot as Bad Guy drew first. Still, the Marshals are less than happy with Raylan and transfer him to the Lexington, KY office, essentially, Raylan's hometown.

Played by Timothy Olyphant (late of Deadwood), Raylan is quiet, intense, restrained, accomplished, pretty hot, incredibly angry, and quite simply, not messing around. With Raylan's return to Kentucky, a can of riotous familial worms blows open and each episode unveils another tidbit of his fascinating back story from digging coal in the hills with a white supremacist former friend to his con man ex-con daddy still playing the grift even against Raylan himself.

My critique partner and I have decided that like his Daddy, Raylan runs his own con on the criminals he captures, spinning the long monologues he uses to convince them to give up their guns or get ready to die to con them into doing what he wants, and sometimes that's not to give up their guns so he can shoot them. My brilliant CP is working on an article on that very theme, so I'm not going to belabor the point but will let her do the heavy lifting and link to her article when it's done. I will say this kind of examination of the program happens because it is so smartly written and so complex.

Justified is based on a short story by Elmore Leonard called Fire in the Hole. Dramatizations of Leonard's work seem to be hit and miss (Out of Sight versus Get Shorty). I really enjoyed Out of Sight and was very fond of the short-lived Karen Sisco series that sprang from that movie but could never be tempted by any of the others. I recently read an interview with Leonard where he said how he's never liked the films made from his books. Justified is the rare one to arrive with his blessing (he's also a producer on the show) possibly because there are times when the show clearly lifts and/or mimics his dialogue and style. His characters are quirky and his bad guys get nearly equal screen time even without Raylan's presence. In this way, it's black, villainous humor like a better Pulp Fiction at times, which makes sense since Tarantino cites Leonard as a clear influence for that movie. This correlation came full circle as the mob hit men from one recent episode are discussing Pulp Fiction during a stakeout. My brain actually turned inside out turning that back on itself two or three times (Leonard to Pulp Fiction to Justified to Pulp Fiction to Leonard…stop the madness!!!)

But it's Raylan who's the draw. As the sixth episode airs tonight, Raylan has taken up with a woman who shot her abusive husband in the pilot. Now he's trying to keep the hillbilly, white supremacist, ex-con filled, bat-crazy family of the dead husband from killing them both, has bailed his father out of jail only to learn the old man conned him from the start so now he wants to get daddy dearest back behind bars, and has justifiably gunned down 1, 2, 3, 4 - a whole bunch of bad guys, which the FBI does not like. They're sort of investigating him. Oh, did I mention his ex-wife works in the courthouse? Yep, coming home is working out just fine for Raylan Givens.

The writing is clever (and we know how I like the clever, people), sometimes raw (flexing those loose basic cable language muscles, though not gratuitously), salacious, quick, and very funny. As the episodes proceed and explore ever deeper the mythos of the series and the history and conflicts of the characters, raising the emotional stakes every week, Justified gets sharper, funnier, impactful, and more must see with each passing week.

Justified is on the FX network on Tuesdays at 10 PM EST and is usually rated MA for mature audiences due to language, violence, and sexual content.

Disclaimer (because I don't want Raylan to show up and shoot me): I received no incentive to write this review other than an inability to delete the show permanently from my DVR if only to see Raylan's hospital confrontation with his daddy one more time.

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