Thursday, January 27, 2011

Justified - Season 1

The only reason I didn't watch Justified when it premiered early last year was that I wanted to see Walton Goggins' acclaimed work there before moving on to the new show he was in. Sort of silly, but I'm glad I did in anyway so my impressions of Shane remained uncolored. The DVD came out in time to catch up before season two begins in a couple weeks, so there's nothing really lost anyway. Justified is a hybrid of police procedurals and serialized drama, set in the deep South of Kentucky and starring Timothy Olyphant as author Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens, an old-fashioned lawman living in a modern age. The style is sort of a mix of elements from westerns and detective novels, with Givens having both the keen wit and lightning trigger finger necessary to work as the protagonist of either. He doesn't quite fit in to today's world, shown in the premiere when he's shipped from Miami back to his hometown after he kills a man in broad daylight, and put on the low end of the totem pole in the Marshall's office. There's something dark hidden under his cool exterior, and the first season does a good job of exploring that a bit while leaving some mystery intact, and establishing him as one of the most interesting and entertaining protagonists on TV.

There's more to the show than just him though, as he has to deal with his estranged father, the criminal network and family of old friend Boyd played by Goggins, and a multitude of other issues that arise from week to week. The show juggles stand-alone cases with the more long-term elements pretty deftly, especially as the season goes on and the two become more integrated. Only the premiere and maybe the last three episodes don't have any elements unrelated to the central story, but you hardly notice one way or the other just because the weekly stuff is so generally strong. Not every one is a grand mystery, but even the most obvious ones are amazingly enjoyable thanks to near-universally great writing and casting, and when things tie back into larger goings-on it feels like a bonus rather than a relief. The dialogue is sharp, the whole cast is interesting enough with Olyphant and Goggins at the center, and the violence is remarkably bloody and well-filmed for a cable show.

Really, there's not much about the show not to like. Maybe if it was more focused on a story and the main characters rather than having fun with a bunch of different one-offs, it could have pulled off something even greater in the end. But even with the divided attention, they managed to complete a really entertaining and satisfying arc through these first thirteen episodes, basically having their cake and eating it too. There's enough left open to keep the possibilities of the next season exciting, especially with some of the choices a couple characters make by the end, and it's just a well-produced, funny show that you can check out once in a while or watch every week. It makes you wonder why networks can't get this stuff right - so often you either get a serialized show that doesn't go anywhere or an episodic one with highly fluctuating levels of quality from one episode to the next, and Justified handles both aspects with ease. I guess it just comes down to the quality of the source material, the writing, and the casting - Justified is filled to the brim with talented character actors who just aren't famous enough to be on movie posters. It's not perfect, but it's as solid as shows with its somewhat modest aspirations can get.

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