Friday, May 28, 2010

Justify my love

"Step into my parlor."

 Now that Lost has left the airways forever (let us observe a moment of silence, please), did you know the show that inherited the title of best show on television is currently airing on the same night?  That's right, you can get your fix of high comedy and drama, with a sweet drop of serialization thrown in, by tuning over to FX at 10 pm and checking out Justified.  If you have yet to partake of this fine sippin' whiskey of a show, pull it up On Demand, or look for repeats, or head on over to the official Raylan Givens Memorial Web Page, where you can watch back episodes online.

If you know and are a fan of Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, Jackie Brown (ne' Rum Punch), Out of Sight, and many others), then all I have to say is that Justified puts Leonard on screen better than any film or television show has ever done before.  If you have no idea who Elmore Leonard is, however, then, boy, get yourself some schoolin'.  Time to head to the library and fill up on his back catalog, or at least check out each of the three fine movies made from his books which I listed in the parenthetical above.  And once you do that, then you can get to pullin' it up On Demand, or lookin' for repeats, or headin' on over to the official Raylan Givens Memorial Web Page, where you may have heard that you can watch back episodes online.

Yeah, did I happen to mention that I think you should watch this show?  Learn why after the break...
While most of Leonard's work is set in either Detroit or Miami (and their respective surrounding environs), about 20 years ago old Elmore created a US Marshall named Raylan Givens, who had been born and raised in Harlan County, Kentucky, home to coal mines, moonshine, and deep dark hollers where the sun never shines.  Raylan escaped his coal digging past at a young age, joining the military, and then later becoming a member of the United States Marshal Service, the anachronistic law enforcement agency which once employed the likes of Wyatt Earp, the real Seth Bullock, Wild Bill Hickock, and Bat Masterson.  Raylan moved to the sunnier climes of Miami, but in a story Leonard wrote back in 2001, Raylan had to return to his hometown and deal with Boyd Crowder, a white supremacist Raylan knew and grew up with.  Boyd liked to run around, blowin' shit up while shoutin', "Fire in the hole!" He and Raylan used to dig coal together before Raylan went on to bigger and better things, and Boyd went on to try and blow up the Cinci-tucky Federal Building..  The story Leonard wrote was of a man coming to grips with his past in ways both humorous and violent, and Givens is one of Leonard's most indelible characters, having appeared in several books and short stories.

The television show takes the bones of Leonard's story and gives us a Raylan Givens sent back to Kentucky as punishment for shooting one Tommy Bucks, a criminal connected to a drug cartel in Miami.  The opening scene of the pilot episode has Raylan confronting Bucks in a swanky Miami rooftop restaurant, after having, get this, given Bucks 24 hours to get out of town or else.

Tommy Bucks chooses 'or else'.

Raylan shoots him deader than disco in front of the horrified mid-day Miami ladies who lunch, and he expects to get off with a wrist slap, since, as Raylen puts it, "I was justified.  He drew first."

Unfortunately for Raylan, this show is set in the year 2010, not 1876.  The media, politicians, attorneys, and watchdog groups of today have little patience for the wild west tactics of yore, or the modern day cowboys who still practice them.  Since the shooting was technically justified (as are all of Raylan's shootings), his superiors try and take the piss out of him by banishing him to the one place on the planet Raylan would rather never see again: his boyhood home of Harlan County, Kentucky, the place where truly everyone knows your name   and your business.  And from the gorgeous scenery to the heavy accents to the old world meets new world vibe that comes from moonshine meeting crystal meth, Kentucky is definitely one of the stars of this show.

If you are unfamiliar with backwoods Kentucky, having never seen Barbara Kopple's awesome documentary Harlan County, USA, about the 1973 coal miners strike, or the fine Holly Hunter film version, Harlan County War, just picture every Loretta Lynn song you've ever heard, as sung by a dimwitted, gap toothed, good old boy.  Also picture amazing backwoods vistas, as southern Kentucky has some of the prettiest landscapes known to man, with one old steel bridge after another crossing creek after creek as you drive through some of the densest forests and hills in the country.  Justified makes keen use of those Kentucky locales, especially in the pilot, where it seems nearly every scene was filmed outdoors to take advantage of the natural beauty of the Kentucky hill country, and the claustrophobia it can sometimes induce.

What sets Justified apart from nearly every other show on television is that it is serialized, but it's a cop show that is serialized like a soap opera.  The serial aspects of the show have nothing to do with investigations (other than the never ending criminal activity of the evil Crowder family), and everything to do with relations.  Family relations, romantic relations, workplace relations, and prison relations mix and juxtapose in an hilarious and incestuous manner that sees everyone eventually getting in on everyone else's shit. 

Did I say hilarious?  Well, yes I did.  Elmore Leonard's books are always a mixture of the funny and the profane, with dimwitted crooks, cops and civilians making you laugh and laugh right up until they explode into shocking violence that chokes off that laugh in your throat.  Leonard can be silly and profound in the span of just a few sentences, and Justified captures that flavor as well as anything I've yet seen.  It's no wonder, as Graham Yost, creator, producer and writer, has a resume which includes From Earth to the Moon, The Pacific, Boomtown, and Band of Brothers.  And Yost is smart enough to draw liberally from the Leonard oeuvre.  Justitfied's pilot borrows elements from the Raylan Givens story Fire in the Hole, but the show finds a way each week to bring in plots, characters, situations, and dialogue lifted from or inspired by numerous Elmore Leonard books, with the latest being a (whattya know) funny, profane, profound, and violent federal judge based heavily on Leonard's Maximum Bob Gibbs (played to a tee by Stephen Root while wearing a speedo under his judicial robes).

Finally, there are the characters and the actors who play them.  It all begins with Raylan Givens, delightfully underplayed by Timothy Olyphant in a giant beige Stetson.  Olyphant, who you may remember from Deadwood, plays Raylan like Sherrif Seth Bullock without the stick up his ass.  Raylan is taciturn and tough, but also sly, sharp as a tack, and funny as all get out when he wants to be.  He also makes you buy completely into the idea that this is one of the most intimidating men on the planet, while at the same time showing the vulnerability that comes from being stuck in a town where everyone remembers exactly who he was before he ever had the hat, the gun, or the attitude.  Walton Goggins, who plays Raylan's childhood friend, former coal mining buddy, and now #1 adversary, Boyd Crowder, manages to prick Raylan's balloon again and again, and it's electric any time Olyphant and Goggins are on the screen together.  You feel the weight of years emanating from both men, and they have an easy rapport rarely seen on television today.  Boyd is a white supremacist bank robber, with ties to everyone in town (either by blood or money), who takes a left turn and becomes a born again Messiah with a flock of devoted knucklehead disciples.  We are ten episodes in now, and I have still been unable to get a handle on whether Boyd is sincere or not, and that's a testament to the writing and the acting.

Finally, there are two of my favorite character actors of all time: Nick Searcy (From Earth to the Moon's Deke Slayton), as Raylan's dyspeptic boss, Art, and M.C. Gainey (Lost's Mr. Friendly), as the menacing Crowder family patriarch, Bo, who is quick with both a smile and a fist the size of a canned ham.  And each and every week, the guest actors are the toppest of top notch, as Ted Knight might have said, as the casting is inspired and inspiring with each new character they introduce.  

And then there is that old Kentucky home.  I didn't grow up there, but as an Ohio boy I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth across the Bluegrass state, and I have in-laws living there to this day, having married a pretty girl who comes from a long and distinguished line of rednecks.  Just driving through the state is an experience, and spending time there can be transformative.  It's not quite the south, but it sure ain't the north.  Kentucky is its own unique thing, and you would be wise to visit it each and every Tuesday evening at ten.

You can thank me later.


  1. Kevin Not SmithMay 28, 2010 5:00 PM

    Read my mind, Schmoker. But I thought Justified the best show on TV even before Lost bit the dust.

  2. Better than Out of Sight and Jackie Brown? I have to watch it now, and then I'll have to come back and make fun of you when it isn't. No way a TV show is better than those two movies. No way. Bet you think Lost is better than the Godfather.

  3. Yeah, okay, you called, it. I came to Justified during season two, but now I am allow caught up and in love. Not all of Schmokersense makes sense, but I wish I had stumbled upon this bit two years ago. It would have saved me thirty bucks in DVD costs.