Imagine you’re a network exec at, say, FX. Some dude comes in and sits down to pitch a new show to you. Actually, he’s not just some dude, he’s Graham Yost, who wrote two excellent hours of “Band of Brothers” (and is a writer/director on the currently-airing “The Pacific”) and who created the sorely underappreciated “Boomtown.” So he sits down in your office and he says tells you:
I want to make a show about a big city U.S. Marshall who is sent back to his hometown in Kentucky, a bit against his will. And this Marshall is of the old time Western sheriff mold, all tough guy and bundled up angst, who drinks his whiskey on the rocks (mixers are for pussies, don’t ya know?) and who likes using the gun slung on his hip to take out trouble. His name’s Raylan Givens, and he’ll be based on an Elmore Leonard character. Hell, Leonard may even exec produce. And, get this — I think I can bring Timothy Olyphant in to play Givens. So, whattaya think?
Now, you’d have to be an idiot not to take this show and run with it right? Well, luckily, the execs at FX are not idiots, because “Justified” is fantastic. At the show’s open, Raylan Givens (Olyphant) is a Marshall working in Miami. But he’s transferred to his hometown back in Kentucky after literally badassing a dude into pulling a gun on him, so he can shoot the dude dead (“tell me about the shooting,” he’s later asked, to which he simply responds “it was justified”). That opening scene answers a major question we’ve had about Givens since the first promos for this show dropped — yes, he really is like a version of Olyphant’s beloved sheriff Seth Bullock (“Deadwood”) dropped into the 21st century. As the first hour plays out, however, we come to learn that, although he has the same level of “you fucking with me?” gravitas that Bullock wielded, Givens also has considerable more charisma and (dark) levity.
As to be expected, Olyphant is gripping in the role, and he’s a pleasure to watch. Frankly, if the show were nothing more than him wandering around towns, gun by his side, Stetson on his head, I’d probably never complain. Luckily, however, the show looks to have a bit more going for it. One of the smart things about taking the big city Marshall and dropping him into a small pond is that in Kentucky, the Marshalls don’t have specialties, because “everybody does everything — witness relocation, judicial protection, prisoner transport, fugitives.” This promises that the series can play with a lot of different types of weekly storylines, while still exploring whatever larger character and plot arcs may come into play. So while this premiere episode (based on Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole”) loosely focused on Givens hunting down a former friend, Boyd (Walton Goggins), who has gone white supremacist and murdery, we know that every week won’t simply be a variation on “he tries to track down a bad guy.” Of course, the question remains whether those episodes will be able to stand on their own as strongly as the premiere, when they don’t have a Leonard story as their foundation, but given Yost’s work on “Boomtown,” I’m optimistic that this won’t be a problem.
If some of those later episodes are not able to quite hold up in terms of the story or the writing, I have little doubt that Olyphant will be able to carry it on his own. Hopefully, however, some of the other cast members will do their part as well. Goggins, for example, may have been a little on-the-nose in his performance, but he was nevertheless entertaining, and I’m looking forward to his future appearances. Similarly, while Natalie Zae was given very little screen time in the pilot, I’ve been a fan of hers going back to the short-lived and underrated “Eyes” (she was also great as Karen Darling on “Dirty Sexy Money,” and in a recent run in “Hung”), and so I’m also looking forward to her hopefully being given some good things to work with as the series progresses.
And if you’re wondering what Leonard thinks about this take on his work, he seems to think it’s pretty great, with one caveat: he doesn’t like Givens’ hat: “I think he ought to just chuck it…. What’s he need it for? He’s not in the West; he’s from Kentucky. I think it’s got out of hand. It’s not the hat that he wears in the book — which is the small, little businessman’s Stetson, but well-worn, and crushed and disfigured.”
Stupidly, FX doesn’t make the pilot available for viewing on its website, although it’s currently available for free on iTunes. If that’s not your cup of tea, and you’re not inclined to wait for the series to drop on DVD, FX also offers a three-minute recap which gives you most of what you need to know to jump in with the second episode, which airs tonight at 10 p.m. (and then several more times over the course of the week, as FX is wont to do). Do yourself a favor and wash the taste of “American Idol” out (if you’re still suffering through that noise) with some old-fashioned grit and gristle.