Kicking off our series of TV shows you need to see, it’s FX’s crime drama, Justified.
When recommending a TV show to someone, a high concept is much easier to pitch than something which at first glance seems to be relatively by the books. “Oh, it’s about a chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal cancer so starts cooking meth in the desert to provide for his family,” is a lot more arresting as a premise than “this US Marshall is reassigned to his home state of Kentucky to avoid the heat from a controversial Miami shooting.” Convincing people to watch Justified reminds me a lot of trying to convince them to watch Veronica Mars back in 2006 – every sentence of explanation followed by “but trust me, it’s much better that it sounds.”
Deserving of a wider audience, Justified’s razor-sharp writing, electric performances and precise direction form a brilliant whole
Fish out of water police dramas are nothing new, but Justified’s razor-sharp writing, electric performances and precise direction form such a brilliant whole that it is deserving of a far wider audience. Airing in the US on the excellent FX network (also home to The Americans, Fargo and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Justified is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s short story Fire in the Hole, about US Marshal Raylan Givens (played here by Timothy Olyphant) returning to the crime-ridden backwaters of his hometown, Harlan, and his encounters with the outlaw class that populate it, chief among them Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Crowder is the dark mirror to Raylan’s lawman – the pair grew up together, and the interplay between them as contemporaries, adversaries and occasional allies has driven the plot for the last five seasons.
Raylan is something of a modern-day cowboy, rarely seen without a Stetson hat, and an expert at the quick draw. This is TV, so naturally his methods are not always by the book, but refreshingly, instead of being one of the complex and tortured anti-heroes who have almost become a cliché of prestige television, Raylan is very much one of the good guys, operating within the confines of the law. Olyphant plays Raylan with great aplomb, delivering threats, quips and justice with a cocksurety and arrogance, his banter with both his colleagues in the Marshal’s office and Harlan’s bandits endlessly quotable. In a particularly memorable scene, he proclaims, “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole”, in the process revealing more about himself than the criminal he is chastising.
More on TV: Why do we continue to watch The Walking Dead?
Much like Leonard’s other work (Get Shorty and Out of Sight, to name but two), Justified has a thick vein of comedy running through it. You’ll find yourself laughing more over the course of an episode than during some of your favourite sitcoms. Grounded in reality, the criminals the marshal service encounter are more often than not distinctly moronic. One great episode sees perennial hick Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) convinced by an unscrupulous surgeon that he has removed his kidneys, forcing him on a crime spree across the county to raise money for his ransomed organs without him ever considering if they’re actually still in place.
Weaving a thread amongst the criminal fraternity is Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, for many the true star of the show
Peppered in amongst the simpletons are Justified’s great eccentric villains, such as softly-spoken Mafia subordinate Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), who lives in a motor home and has a penchant for women’s tennis, barbecue-obsessed Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) and the thunderous Mags Bennett, adept poisoner and matriarch of the dim-witted Bennett clan, played by the phenomenal Margo Martindale, who rightfully won an Emmy for her performance. But weaving a thread amongst this criminal fraternity and Raylan is Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, for many the true star of the show.
Goggins has been under the radar for many years, but his brilliant turn in Justified has made people stand to attention, Tarantino recently casting him in a central role in his table read/live rehearsal of The Hateful Eight, which seemed tailor-written for the actor. His Crowder is wild-haired, fluorescent-toothed and silver-tongued. His position is not ambiguous – he is a cold-blooded killer and the ultimate villain of the show, but every time he talks his way out of a life-threatening predicament or enacts revenge upon those he perceives to have wronged him, you can’t help but cheer. This is why Justified, amongst the Mad Men and True Detectives of our time, has become one of the best television shows on screen: in amongst its serious stories of crime, family and loyalty, it never forgets to entertain.
More on TV: Why film actors keep flocking to television
All images: FX