Sunday, July 31, 2011

Things I've Enjoyed: Justified

It's always good to see a cop show which resists the standard shows formulas. A show that's not built around a gimmick or takes place somewhere where a cop show hasn't been set yet. One of the real pleasures of Justified is that it's not interested in be ing another procedural drama, and its writers seem keen to defy your expectations whenever possible.

On paper it could so easily be another "fish out of water" concept. Raylon Givens is an old school lawman whose habit of committing "justified" homicides gets him into trouble in LA. So they ship him off to the real frontier - the country sticks of Kentucky, where he rapidly gets into hot water with the local redneck mafia.

Fortunately, Justified is adapted from a story by acclaimed crime author Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, LA Confidential). Givens isn't arriving in Kentucky, he's coming home. And his family are already part of the redneck mafia - and he's been in trouble with them for years.

His old school friend Boyd is now a white supremacist who blows up black churches with his army bazooka (he's less racist, more in to intimidating competition). His ex high school squeeze Ava has just shot her husband dead - he was Boyd's brother. And Givens' father used to work for Boyd's father, the local crime kingpin, and he owes him lots of money.

Justified is not so much about crime investigation and more focused on the nature justice, which in these poor rural counties is something of a rarity. Crime isn't just a way of life, it's a steady form of employment. To grow pot is to be part of a family business. The wives of dealers and thugs look at their husbands as working men, not as dealers and thugs. They're poor - you never see a school or a thriving local business (not a legal one anyway), no one gets out of this world, even Raylon got sent back.

The fact that most of the redneck thugs aren’t too bright adds an extra touch of bitter amusement, although it doesn't make them any less dangerous. What they lack in book smarts, they make up with violence and animal cunning. Boyd may have barely finished high school, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous or ruthless. Or at least until Raylon shoots him - then he supposedly reforms, but you never really know what game he's playing.

Timothy Olyphant plays Marshall Givens, having already showed that he can play an angry lawman in Deadwood. But unlike the barely suppressed rage of Sheriff Bullock, Givens’ anger is much more repressed. His demeanour is always calm, even when he’s a split second away from putting a bullet in your chest. He’s handsome and he knows it, using his looks to charm his way around enemies and friends alike, something that rubs at least one of his colleagues up the wrong way.

And that's another enjoyable aspect to Justified - there's no taking turns between characters for the weekly storyline. Supporting character stories might rub up against Givens' arc, but in the way that other people’s problems might brush up against your own life. You may get involved, pulled in even, but you've got your own problems to worry about.

Justified is a pleasing case of serial storytelling, rather than a "this week's case" type of procedural, made more for casual viewers than weekly viewers. There are weekly plots, but they're usually played as they are, as an inconvenience to the main characters, something that distracts them from the things they'd much rather be doing. Rather than the other way round.

And the storylines are usually very good. Stories are written deliberately to defy your expectations, when you think you know what's going on, something almost always takes you by surprise. And elements of stories that seem incidental or irrelevant come back to mean something later; things connect up in ways you don't expect. One week a character may be incidental to the plot, then suddenly they're corrupt and have being up to something completely different all along. It's these little twists and turns and details that make this world real, but are largely missing from "case of the week" serials.

That's not to say that the show is perfect. A recurring plot during the first season which sees Raylon pursued by assassins sent by an LA drug lord never convinces and perhaps in recognition of its faults is later swept rapidly under the carpet. There's at least one lame character - Raylon's ex-wife's husband - who's the typical slimy second husband type, and it's even harder in this case to believe he wrestled the wife of Timothy Olyphant away.

Not that Raylon is perfect; he's not one of those TV detectives who carries his pain on the rasp of his voice. But he's determined to impose justice on a world, and a past of injustice. And he's not all that bothered about whether the law is on his side or not.

Like the other town's folk, he works on instinct. Sometimes we like seeing him put the villains down, other times his judgement is clearly off. He spares little time jumping into bed with Ava, despite her being a witness (though not difficult to see why). His rule breaking forever digs him into deeper holes, to the point where even his friends desert him. He's devoted to justice but has little respect for the law.

He also gets his ass handed to him a couple of time. It’s not many shows that let their main character get a sound beating; they’re only allowed to be weak in times of crisis, not just when they make a daily misjudgement.

Justified has completed its second series and is geared up for a third. How long it can keep up its talent for surprises while trying to find new redneck mafiosa for our hero to deal with is hard to say. At the moment, however, you'll struggle to find more entertaining morality play on TV.