In an age when “quality” television is celebrated for its literary qualities, ‘Justified’ takes aim a little lower—at entertainment—and bullseyes its target.
Exiled from a prestigious posting in Miami for killing a criminal in a quick-draw gunfight, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is transferred back home to Harlan County, Kentucky, forcing an unwelcome reacquaintance with his past, with the greatest discomfort arising from encounters with his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), his criminally inclined father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) and, most significantly, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a Somerset Maugham-reading troublemaker given to both violence and philosophising.
Raylan is like a movie cowboy in a number of ways. He wears a cowboy hat, regularly finds himself in gunfights and is played by an actor who hasn’t shied away from cowboy parts, including supplying the voice of the very (Eastwoodesque) Spirit of the West in ‘Rango’. Even his friends, enemies and frenemies—in the case of childhood-pal-turned-criminal Boyd Crowder—frequently comment on Raylan’s cowboy traits and trappings, but, like any good cowboy, he does not openly reflect upon his own masculine role-play.
An incapacity for self-reflection has always been an important feature of the movie cowboy, forming part of an overarching reticence that permits only pith of the “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” flavour. Aside from this trademark lack of self-absorption, however, Raylan talks a little too much to be a movie cowboy. He may be strong, but he is definitely not silent. Granted he preserves a laconic air, but he has an obvious weakness for anecdotes, both delivering and receiving. This isn’t too surprising, really, in light of the fact that the character was created by Elmore Leonard, who writes stories populated by characters who enjoy telling stories. In the world of criminal dim-wittedness Leonard tends to describe, it is important for his heroes to be able to amuse at least themselves as they go against the flow of a kind of general atmospheric stupidity.
In addition to his uncowboyish garrulousness, there is the fact that Raylan operates in the uncowboyish present, and in the Upper South rather than the Wild West. Instead of Indians, gunslingers and cattle barons, he contends with drug-slinging hillbillies, inept fraudsters and a rabble of White supremacists: often all three in the one individual.
Some of his speech is spent filling in his colleagues, parachuted into the literal backwoods of Kentucky, on the local lore and the complicated genealogy of Harlan County’s criminal luminaries. The context both he and the series provide is wilfully parochial. One imagines a geographic range about equal to that which hemmed in Bo and Luke Duke in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’. In that more obviously daft series, the weekly narrative box-ticking consisted of at least two car chases, some pantomime japes involving Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, and a guest character apparently well known to all the inhabitants of Hazzard County who we regular viewers have never previously seen, and will never see again. Though ‘Justified’ is clearly targeted at an adult audience, and is broadly located within the body of quality Cable TV dramas currently enjoying critical and audience acclaim, it employs a similar formula to that used in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ and, despite the apparent taint of such an association, works successfully.
‘Justified’ makes a similar appeal to the idea of rural South as a primitive, almost alien locale protected from the enervating sophistication and decadence of the contemporary metropolis. In a direct line from Daisy Duke, there is for the (presumably male) viewer’s delectation the unprimped beauty of the sassy Southern belle (Ava Crowder, played by Joelle Carter) who can throw a punch, take a drink and look beautiful with none of the neediness of a Carrie Bradshaw. Instead of moonshine, there is Oxycontin and crystal-meth. We are almost guaranteed that each week Raylan will find himself in a climactic encounter with a bad guy. If the bad guy happens to be played by a guest star, the confrontation will probably be one he won’t walk away from. There are the other necessary improbabilities of most drama series: many of the lead characters get shot (some of them on more than one occasion) but are back to themselves an episode or two later. Unlike ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ there is an overall season arc that draws together the various story strands, but each episode also services a stand-alone story.
‘Justified’ is not aiming for the more elevated experience of the prestige Cable dramas, such as ‘Mad Men’, ‘Treme’ or ‘Luck’. Those shows enjoy greater latitude in the comprehensibility (or lack thereof) of their story-telling process, begging—as a kind of higher TV “literature”—an indulgence of a slower storytelling rhythm, narrative threads that wind together slowly, and a thwarting of the resolution and happy endings guaranteed by pulp TV. Such shows also enjoy—if one buys the critical praise—the improving, edifying aura that is usually credited to high art, in contrast to the degrading, corrosive effects attributed to the base entertainments of pop culture. This is not to say that there is any absence of quality in the writing of ‘Justified’, but merely that its true focus seems to be on entertaining, rather than shaping, the viewer, and its not inconsiderable art resides in its ability to do so without fussily drawing attention to itself. Like Raylan Givens, it is happy to tell a story, laconically, choosing not to reflect openly on how its cowboy style stands out against the flash and noise of the moment.
For some reason, the pleasure this show affords puts me in mind of the experience of watching ‘The Rockford Files’ back in the 1970s. When I say “watching” I mean hearing that zany theme tune and catching sight of the opening titles, but being either too distracted or too tired to put up with the whole thing. The actual watching of the show was left to my father, and, I suppose naturally, the feelings I associate with that memory (which are also stirred by ‘Justified’) are of a kind of paternal, light-hearted and ultimately harmless storytelling space. There was something in such a show that permitted men who would not otherwise be bothered with television to sit down and watch. In that respect, it operated much like ‘Justified’—offering a sort of TV licence to laconic men who wore hats, but also happened to enjoy a good story.