TV review: ‘Justified’ offers clever, gripping western drama

By Asher Elbein

“Justified” doesn’t immediately seem like the best western on television. Indeed, with its modern setting and modest budget, it doesn’t look much like a western at all. But don’t let the trappings fool you — based on the works of Elmore Leonard and premiering on FX, “Justified” is tight, thrilling television of the highest caliber.

Raylan Givens, U.S. Marshal, is an unhappy man. Re-assigned to his home county of Harlan, Ky. after a controversial Miami, Fla., shooting, the Marshal finds himself embroiled with violent felons, scheming drug runners and the sinister Dixie Mafia. But the most dangerous people around him may be his own friends and family.

“Justified” is probably the best written cop show on television, and that is not said lightly. Much of the pleasure of the show comes from its deft juggling of stand alone cases with more serialized elements.

The story arc of the first season is introduced quietly in the background, gathering tension and momentum with each episode until it explodes into a bloody and devastating climax. That attention to detail affects other aspects of the show as well, including the uncommonly sharp dialogue. Scenes manage to veer between hilarious and serious without ever sounding unrealistic. During one particularly tense standoff, Raylan douses a gun-holding felon with gasoline from a pump. When the man cocks the gun, Raylan bemusedly asks if he knows how firearms work, and proceeds to explain basic chemistry to him.It’s bits like this that make Raylan such a compelling lead. A soft spoken man with a hidden temper and a lightening quick draw, Timothy Olyphant plays him with easy charisma and a charmingly understated sense of humor. The swagger masks a deeply conflicted character; Raylan is a good man, but also an occasionally selfish and thoughtless one, and the writers do a nice job of exploring the contradiction between his cool affect and the anger boiling within.

Of course, every hero needs a villain, and into this role steps the marvelously complicated and enigmatic Boyd Crowder. A white supremacist turned evangelical preacher, he knows his scripture back to front and has a penchant for blowing things up with rocket launchers. As portrayed by the excellent Walter Goggins, Boyd speaks with a slow articulate drawl and hypnotic eyes, dominating every scene he’s in. Watching him and Raylan in their verbal duels is never anything short of thrilling.It would be very easy for a show set in rural Kentucky to slip into caricature, but “Justified” balances humor, violence and pathos with uncommon skill. Those looking for gripping and addictive television will not be disappointed.

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