“In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky
That’s the place where I traced my bloodline
And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone
“You’ll never leave Harlan alive”
“Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin’
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you’ll fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinkin’
And you spend your life just thinkin’ of how to get away.”
– “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” Brad Paisley (or Patty Loveless…both recorded the song in 2001)
As a big country music fan, I immediately knew how I would begin this review when I found out FX’s new show, Justified, is set largely in Harlan, Kentucky. I know technically this highly enjoyable western/police hybrid drama is based on a set of books by Elmore Leonard (who produces the show), but trust me. Those song lyrics say just as much about Justified as any other source would.
But the writers don’t beat you over your head with that theme, either. It all seems very natural, very realistic. Akin to The Wire. When asking fans of that show why they consider the best ever made, they inevitably respond with how real the stories and acting and filming are. How the writers captured Baltimore’s crime and crimestopping worlds. Justified does the same thing, in an entirely different area of the country. The head of the US Marshalls, the villains, the witnesses, the victims. Everyone is completely in character and believable.
For our non-Southern readers, they might wonder if Kentucky is the South. Trust me, it is. Their sensibilities aren’t exactly like Alabama or Georgia, but they’re much closer to that than the Great Lakes. Oklahoma, where I lived for a year, is in that same betwixt mode. Not purely Southern, but enough to get the point across. Which is why I could relate to Justified. I know that’s what life’s really like.
Like The Wire, Justified shows viewers what it’s like for both the lawmen and the criminals. They show us not only what happens leading up to the inevitable confrontation; they also show us the interactions within each faction before we get there. Actually, that’s my main gripe with this show. They make the bad guys so darn likeable that I’m always disappointed when they get killed. I wanted to see more of them. It’s not necessarily that you support what the villains are doing. But you understand that there’s more to it than just being bad. They have other motivations in life. They have reasons for doing what they’re doing. They’re not all bad. Just mostly bad.
And the main character, US Marshall Raymond Givens, is mostly good. Don’t go into this thinking he’s FX’s next anti-hero (like Vic Mackey or Patty Hewes). Givens, perfectly portrayed by Timothy Olyphant, has a strong moral code. He knows right from wrong. And he’ll only kill someone if he must. He has no reservations about doing that, even shooting an old friend if he has to. But he tries his hardest to avoid getting to that situation.
Still, he’s not a by-the-books officer. What fun would that be? As one of his partners says, he’s got swagger. He walks around in a cowboy hat, speaks softly, acts continually relaxed, and is willing to go out on his own and do things his way. Because he trusts himself, and maybe doesn’t trust others (not completely developed, yet). We do know that his father is a criminal, who we’ve yet to meet. And something (probably his dad) drove him out of Kentucky. There’s some interesting stuff there and I can’t wait to find out more. Olyphant portrays Givens in such a likeable and trustworthy way, you just can’t help loving this character.
With all the dramas filling the channel guide, let me tell you exactly what this isn’t.
– It’s not a serial. You can watch one episode without needing to see the previous.
– But, it’s not a procedural. Every episode works differently, with a different set of circumstances.
– It’s not a pure drama. There’s too much relaxed humor for that title.
– It’s not a dramedy. There’s some real emotional content and heavy-hitting action.
– It’s not a western. Yes, he wears a cowboy hat and a belt buckle. But unlike the previews (which I think were terribly misleading and probably drove people away), this is set in modern day and just features a talented cop.
– But, it’s not a cop show. He does have western sensibilities. References to High Noon are no accident (though, they also made allusions to Pulp Fiction…so it works both ways).
– It’s not an ensemble show. Don’t come looking for great character- based episodes, delving into every person like Lost. Givens is the star. This show is about him.
– But, it’s not a one-man show. The supporting cast is rock solid and again captures the essence of small town (Lexington, not that small) life. We’ll continue to learn more about them, while Givens drives the action.
I hope you’re thoroughly confused and intrigued and tune into Justified, Tuesdays at 9pm CT on FX. It’s also available on Hulu, which I just used to catch up.