Give Timothy Olyphant a cowboy hat and a hip holster and you’ve got gold. Which makes the casting of Olyphant in the FX Channel’s new series “Justified” as close to a sure bet as you’ll get in the sometimes muddy world of TV. Based on the character Raylan Givens by American crime novelist Elmore Leonard, “Justified” is produced and adapted for the small screen by Graham Yost (“Speed”), and stars Olyphant as Raylan, a U.S. Deputy Marshal who would have been more comfortable in the Wild West, though he manages to thrive in modern times just fine. If you need to picture Raylan, think Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, The Man with No Name, and Olyphant’s own Seth Bullock rolled into one — an “old school” lawman chasing contemporary bad guys who isn’t afraid to get his hands a little dirty, or bloody.
As the pilot opens, Raylan is working Miami, but all that fun in the sun goes out the window after he kills a gangster who he had given 24 hours to relocate. Raylan claims justification for the shoot (the gangster pulled first, after all), but his superiors are none too pleased with his cowboy stunt, and forces him to relocate back home to Kentucky, an assignment that puts him too close to his old hometown of Harlan for Raylan’s liking. Here, Raylan re-teams with former comrade Art Mullen (the always excellent Nick Searcy), the head of the regional U.S. Marshals unit, and rekindles relationships with Ava (Joelle Carter), the girl who got away, and his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea). He also crosses paths with old childhood buddy Boyd (“The Shield’s” Walton Goggins), now a white supremacist with two very bad vices: blowing things up and money, both of which he usually achieves at the same time.
The pilot for “Justified” doesn’t get too much into the activities of the U.S. Marshal’s unit (that’s saved for the second and third episodes), and is primarily concerned with digging up the past of its leading man and the relationships spawn from his return to Harlan. Written by Graham Yost, the episode retraces just enough of Raylan’s roots to give us an insight into the man he was and is, while at the same time building up an inevitable confrontation between childhood buddies Raylan and Boyd. The spunky Ava is thrown into the mix when she kills her husband, Boyd’s brother, in self defense. While Raylan worries that Boyd might come after her next, Ava assures him that hurting her is the last thing on Boyd’s mind. Like brother like brother, as it were.
The second episode “Riverbrook” spends more time with Raylan’s fellow Marshals, Erica Tazel as Rachel Brooks, the lone black female in the unit, and Jacob Pitts as Tim Gutterson, as they chase an escaped convict. Of Raylan’s two fellow marshals, Gutterson gets more character time. A former Ranger sniper turned Marshal, Gutterson has already displayed his prowess with a rifle in the pilot by coolly taking out two bad guys during a firefight. The easygoing, unassuming Gutterson is an intriguing contrast to Raylan, the tall, handsome cowboy with the big hat. Highlights for the episode include a sequence near the beginning where Raylan finds himself at the wrong end of a shotgun. Nothing really happens, but it’s amusing to watch the action-oriented Raylan deal with being the victim.
The third episode, “Long in the Tooth” guest stars Alan Ruck as a Los Angeles dentist with a big secret. Erica Tazel’s Rachel Brooks gets the screentime this time around as she and Raylan are sent to chase down the fugitive dentist, who is on the run to Mexico with his assistant after extracting an unruly patient’s teeth – in the parking lot of the dentist’s office, natch. With the show’s lead working outside his Kentucky surroundings, the episode is sadly lacking appearances by the two women in Raylan’s life –ex-wife Winona and the sassy Ava. We do get more insight into Brooks, and Raylan’s Miami shooting continues to reverberate for our hero. Like the previous two episodes, “Long in the Tooth” manages to be exciting, action-packed, and hilarious at the same time, a trait that runs through all three episodes I’ve seen so far.
The FX Channel is justified (ahem, sorry) in greenlighting a show like “Justified”. It’s definitely not a “backwoods” version of the usual crime procedurals that currently dot the TV landscape, and if anything it’s determined to take a more down-to-Earth approach to the usual crime-of-the-week template, eschewing the high-tech and glossy approach of shows like “CSI” and “Law and Order”. Yost and company have written a show where characters do not play second fiddle to gadgets and gratuitous rotating cameras in neon-lit labs, and that’s quite refreshing to find nowadays. “Justified” has a certain down-to-Earth approach that has been missing from the Crime TV landscape for a while now, and I’m one of those who happily welcome it back. Here, bad guys are still bad guys, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a sense of humor, or hold a chat with the good guys.
If you’re one of those people who misses HBO’s Western “Deadwood”, then “Justified” is a pretty damn good replacement. Timothy Olyphant is certainly in fine form as the tall lawman who says what he means and means what he says. Charm can go a long way, and “Justified” has it in spades.
“Justified” premieres on the FX Channel March 16, 2010.
Graham Yost (writer/producer)
CAST: Timothy Olyphant … Raylan Givens
William Ragsdale … Gary Hawkins
Joelle Carter … Ava Crowder
Doug E. Doug … Israel Fandi
Walton Goggins … Boyd Crowder
Damon Herriman … Dewey Crowe
David Meunier … Johnny Crowder
Jacob Pitts … Tim Gutterson
Nick Searcy … Chief Deputy Art Mullen
Natalie Zea … Winona Hawkins