For my first installment of “A Closer Look,” I’m excited to write about the FX series, Justified.
Elmore Leonard is my favorite writer. The name in that sentence has fluctuated over the years but Dutch has held the top spot the most often and hxe’s there right now. There have been several TV and film adaptations of his prose for over fifty years. Some have been excellent (Out of Sight, Jackie Brown), some have been good (Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma – both versions), and others, not so much (The Big Bounce, anyone?). To have a brilliant TV series like Justified be based on Leonard’s work and run three seasons and have a fourth that premiered this Tuesday? That it’s “good” is simply the icing on the cake.
Fans of the series already know U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) returned to the Kentucky county he grew up in as a young man after one shoot-to-kill too many down in Miami in season one. That last “justified” kill in Florida haunts Raylan for much of season one as certain baddies try to get a little payback but its his Kentucky roots that really get riled upon his return. Old friends turned enemies on opposite sides of the law, blood feuds with weary peace ready to snap the holler, an ex-wife always around, an ex-con daddy getting into trouble, and everybody and their mother (which, as a saying, becomes literal in the second season) wants to take you down? Raylan’s chickens have come home to roost and each episode shows the pros and pitfalls of coming home a changed man. Like Jesus returning to Nazareth, he gets no leeway nor respect from the folks back home. In Raylan’s case, their disrespect comes in the form of sawed-off shotgun barrels.
The series captures many of the elements that make Elmore Leonard stories so good. Cool good guys who don’t lose their cool. Cool bad guys who can’t help but continue to team-up, double-cross each other, team-up again, and then kill each other, finally. Quirky side characters who end up in the most bizarre and hilarious predicaments. Quick-paced dialogue that’s delivered like a play more than real life but comes off as real because of its cadence and rhythm, the way it lends voice to the character as if to say that the way this character speaks says just as much about the character as the words he or she speaks. And settings that feel lived in, that the time and space is real, tangible, to the point it wouldn’t occur to anyone how much the middle of Kentucky looks like So Cal because the art direction and photography lends authenticity to each story. I can’t think of an Elmore Leonard novel or short story I’ve picked up that doesn’t have these elements in spades.
Plus, there are the little things for Elmore Leonard fans. Raylan Givens has appeared in his novels Pronto (pretty good) and Riding the Rap (on my “to read” list) and the pilot is based on the short story Fire in the Hole from the short story collection that’s now named after that short story although it first appeared in the (exact same) collection named When the Women Come Out to Dance. Leonard’s latest novel is Raylan, which he wrote after the first season, come out at the second season, and was cherry-picked by the series writing staff for straight up ideas and adaptations for the second season (both are the same and different and good for different reasons). Another connection is that many of Leonard’s non-western stories see most of their action in Miami and Detroit, the two locales Dutch knows best, and they both play a role in this Kentucky-based story if even by occasional scene or mere mention. Raylan and his chief (played by Nick Searcy, an actor I was unacquainted with and whom does a great job) worked together at Glencoe, a major location in Out of Sight. And Raylan is not Leonard’s first U.S. Marshall protagonist (there’s Carl Webster in The Hot Kid and Up in Honey’s Room and, of course, Karen Sisco from the aforementioned Out of Sight). I’m sure there are more Elmore Leonard universe connections and these are three examples off the top of my head.
The show is violent. It’s on the cable channel FX so it gets away with a little more blood and swearing than network channels. I know that’s a turn-off to some people though violent media seldom bugs me. Aside from gunshot wounds in most every episode, in particular head shots, there’s strong writing that makes one care about the story and the characters. We know most of the people being shot at well, we know their motivations to live and to kill, and even if we don’t know that by the time their bodies hit the floor (or the dusty hill or the swimming pool, etc.) we do know there’s going to be very real consequences for the shooter. The emotional investment makes the violence much more jarring than any special effects can and perhaps that’s why the violence can feel figuratively stronger than it’s literally depicted. That’s good writing.
Last week I went through the first two seasons of Justified just in time for the third to arrive on my doorstep last Tuesday. I usually don’t like to go through a season all at once, preferring to savor it a little more. But season three was excellent and it was hard to stop. I don’t believe in something being so good I “can’t put it down” (that’s for another post) but I certainly was caught up in a Justified-filled week and it got me ready for season four which premiered on Tuesday night (great first episode, by the way). We haven’t had cable since 2010 so I’ve only watched the first season as it was broadcast and had to wait for the blu-ray release on the others. This year I bought the season pass on Amazon to stream episodes from the cloud as they’re released and when the season is over I’ve bought the episodes and they’re mine forever so I think that’s a pretty good deal.
Are you watching Justified this season? Where do you think it will go? Do you have favorite moments or characters or lines? And in all of the men (and now women) that Raylan has had to shoot, was he always “justified”?
Here’s the band Gangstagrass singing the opening theme song with some show footage thrown in for good measure:
This quick promo for one of my favorite episodes of the series gives one a little taste of the show’s tone and Raylan’s walkin’ talkin’ swagger attitude:
This one-minute preview for the fourth season that premiered on Tuesday doesn’t necessarily explicit spoilers if you’ve never seen the show although there are a few shots of characters that gives you an idea of who made it out of seasons one, two, and three alive.