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My Love/Hate Relationship with "Justified," FX's Uneven Crime Drama

3/15/2010 12:42 PM

My husband and I are FX Network devotees.  We’re appointment viewers of Damages, Rescue Me and, to a lesser extent, Sons of Anarchy.  And I seriously mean appointment – we know the time and day of broadcast.  No time shifting for us, if we can avoid it.

Okay, now that I’ve established our FX love cred…

The screeners for FX’s newest crime drama, Justified, were much anticipated. The series, based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in The Hole,”  debuts Tuesday, March 16, at 10p.

FX provided three rough cut episodes for review – the pilot, and episodes two and four.  (#3 was shot out of sequence, according to the press materials.)

I quickly developed a love/hate relationship with this series. There were shiny, brilliant moments and moments when I was typing out notes like “no, no, no - I’m sure the producers are smarter than this.”

Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood, Damages) stars as Raylan Givens, a righteous, gun-slingin’ lawman - a U.S. Marshal with the cowboy hat, swagger and soft-spoken delivery reminiscent of Seth Bullock.  It’s Seth Bullock 2.0., an homage made of win.

Raylan is a straight shooter in more ways than one.  He’s not afraid to use his gun and he draws fast.  For this, he runs into trouble with his superiors and he’s re-assigned to a backwater office in eastern Kentucky – where, incidentally, he was raised.

Justified departs from the other aforementioned FX series in one remarkable way  - the plots are uncomplicated.  It’s a (gasp!) easily digestible procedural.

And therein lies the problem. Television air time is saturated with cop procedurals and the genre is approaching overkill.  It’s a tired, tired genre.  Beneath the overlay of clever dialog and superb cast, Justified is (so far) a typical procedural, and the series is not nearly as edgy as the promos would lead you to believe.  FX exploits the genre, but they haven’t reinvented it - yet.

Timothy Olyphant is the undisputed star of Justified and the series is packed with interesting supporting characters: an ex-wife, a love interest (unconsummated), a warm sympathetic boss, a sharpshooter, an ambitious co-worker, etc.

The press packet hints of more to come.  U.S. Marshal Tim Gutterson (played by Jacob Pitts) “was a sniper; did several tours in Afghanistan. There will be after-effects of that service down the road, but for now, what we see with Tim is a calm man who gets the job done.”  Pitts stands out, as does Nick Searcy as Art Muller, Raylan’s boss.

In spite of the depth of talent, it’s often hard to suspend disbelief while watching Justified. The writers use a slew of convenient guesses by the characters to keep the story moving.

During the second episode Raylan stumbles upon a newspaper article and Deputy Marshal Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) spots a landmark (at night), and - poof! - the marshals have the bad guys surrounded.  Tracking criminals is a breeze in the Justified universe.

Love interest Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) cooks up hot biscuits, gravy and fried chicken for Raylan, but the ensuing climax was telegraphed.  Ava phones Raylan to invite him over for dinner but he knows – just knows -  she’s in trouble. “She didn’t sound right,” he says. The marshals leap in their vehicles for a wild ride to the rescue.  (Woman in jep!)

These types of easy guesses and clichés detract from the series.

Meanwhile, the pilot is peppered with stop signs.  The story brakes hard while the characters deliver long speeches commonly known as the information dump.

Raylan hasn’t seen Ava since high school, but she quickly launches into her backstory.  It’s an interesting backstory, and Carter is lovely, and likeable, but her entire adult life history to date is served to the audience in one big plot dump – with an occasional break for a reaction shot of Raylan.

The info dumps are simultaneously fascinating and annoying.

Fortunately, Timothy Olyphant is loaded with talent and he can deliver these lines and still hold audience interest, to a certain extent.  So can guest star Walton Goggins (Shane in The Shield), as his nemesis/friend Boyd Crowder, who is brilliant.

At one point, Raylan magically materializes at his ex-wife’s house and out of the blue launches into a confessional explanation of why he killed a man who was evil personified.  E ven the gifted Olyphant can’t entirely overcome the writers’ propensity to stop action and beat the audience over the head with info dumps.

The #1 reason to watch this pilot: Walton Goggins.  Goggins upstages Olyphant – yes, Olyphant! -  in a scene shot inside a converted church (Crowder’s skinhead hangout).  Crowder cynically introduces Raylan to his conspiracy theories – a white supremacist, biblically-inspired brew of world order Jew-hating.

Goggins is riveting, outrageous, and laugh-out-loud funny. Watch for the very last line of his sermon, and Raylan’s one line response.  It’s masterful.

Goggins is heavily featured in FX promos, but he only guests in the pilot and appears for a few minutes at the start of the second episode.  IMDB lists him as returning for the 10th episode.

By the fourth episode, some series kinks have been smoothed over and the episode is a stand alone.  Raylan’s endearing habit of sneaking into the back seats of parked cars driven by bad guys, and then firmly explaining how it’s gonna go down, re-emerges in this episode.  (A number of scenes in Justified take place in cars.)

Yet, just as we were starting to get to know the interesting cast of characters - Deputy Gutterson especially -  the series jarringly relocates to LA.  Givens is sent there on “special assignment.”  Deputy Marshal Brooks accompanies Givens but the supporting cast is placed on ice for the duration.  Unfortunately, the fourth episode is a wasted opportunity.  Nothing much is revealed and Brooks remains a skeletal character who spends far too much time standing around in the background.  As the series veered off on the Los Angeles tangent,  it seemed like an odd choice, as if the show was having an identity crisis.

The pilot was filmed in western Pennsylvania - close enough to Kentucky to feel authentic.  Subsequent episodes were shot in LA and the absence of local color/authenticity is noticeable.  Sure, the characters have southern accents, but there is little else to link Justified to Kentucky.  Saving Grace, an otherwise fine cable series, also suffered from the decision to substitute Oklahoma City (the series ostensible setting) with other locations.

The Wire is arguably the finest example of the use of setting and local color. Back in the day, it was The Streets of San Francisco. Otherwise, the audience feels deep in their bones, on an unconscious level, that it’s all just talk. I’m supposed to believe that Justified is set in Kentucky, but I’m just not feeling it.

The constraints are probably budgetary. The producers told Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette if the series takes off they may return to the east coast.

[Executive Producer Graham] Yost said there are no plans to come back to Pittsburgh for additional filming during season one; maybe in season two if the show is successful. For episodes beyond the pilot, the production crew is doing its best to make areas around Los Angeles resemble Kentucky.

“Frankly, we’ve been waiting for the rain to come and green up Los Angeles,” Yost said…

Well, drat…

I hope Justified secures that second season and returns to Pittsburgh – permanently.  With some tightening of the scripts and expanded character development enlivened by a local setting, this very good series could become a great series.