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FX has made its bones on characters who jump through moral hula-hoops. They’ve developed the classic anti-hero: men who want to be good, but only know how to be bad. Whether it's Vic Mackey running around the streets on Farmington using his badge as a key to the city, Jax Teller running guns with a violent motorcycle gang while raising an infant son on his own, or even Wayne Malloy who struggled to raise a family as a decorated conman. Each of these characters is simultaneously little angel and little devil. With Justified, FX has relatively abandoned the “anti” and just moved into the hero character. His name is Raylan Givens.
Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), based on the Elmore Leonard character, is a Western throwback in every sense of the word. He wears cowboy boots and hat to match. He talks with a slowed down Southern drawl and shoots from the hip. He’s courteous and endearing. He is driven by the want to be just, while forcing himself into situations where violence is the only solution or endgame. The writers for Justified throw this into your face within the first three minutes of the series premiere. Givens literally backs himself and a violent criminal into a corner, leaving little wiggle room. The outcome of this confrontation lands Givens back working in his home state of Kentucky, where he’d promised to never return.
Justified is equal parts western and cop drama. The Western allusions (music, Olyphant's hat) mix with a modern day story about Givens and the Marshall's Office building cases against violent criminals in the backwoods. Where Justified splits from other FX classics as it’s more procedural than its predecessors. There is less an over-arching story and more of an episode-to-episode individuality. Some will love this aspect of the show as it mirrors many popular crime dramas on television today. Others, like me, looking for a show to develop and maintain running storylines and delve deeply into characters will come away somewhat disappointed.
The series premiere actually gives the illusion that Justfied’s plan was to create an arc where Givens and Marshall’s Office would develop a case against Rayland’s old friend Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). This premise had promise considering Goggins played an evil, but brilliant, white supremacist who blows up buildings and robbed banks under the guise of white power. And the first episode, “Fire in the Hole” was excellent, well paced, packed full of tension and interspersed with action. I walked away from that episode full of promise about a show going places. But the writers quickly showed their intent: creating individual storylines based around Givens and his “I can draw and fire quicker than you” mentality. It’s a premise some will latch on to and others will quickly abandon.
Givens is a modern day Wyatt Earp; that much is clear. And he carries some baggage with him. His ex-wife wants nothing to do with him and his father is in an ex-criminal who Givens has not spoken to in years. These little pieces of background are alluded to and mentioned, but rarely developed to any significant degree. I assume they will be, but three out of the first four episodes do little to explore these themes.
The series builds its drama on the title. Is what Givens does, to enforce the law, justified? Can he shoot criminals on site as long as they pull first? Can he beat them up when they give him too much lip? Does his badge allow him to take criminals down by any means necessary? These are questions asked hundreds of times on a plethora of other television shows. Justified, by many accounts, is retreading a popular theme. Unfortunately, other shows build on the ambiguity by making the characters moral flip-floppers. With Givens, there is little debate. He is always right and his motives, while cloudy, are always just. Justified premieres Tuesday, March 16th at 10pm ET on FX.