FX’s modern-day, marshal-come-to-town western “Justified” is another bullet in the chamber for cable television and another bullet in the gut for network prime time crime drama.
The basic cable channels born of reruns and old movies have stolen the shield from powerhouse networks that once delivered innovative, complex dramas such as “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue” and “Miami Vice.”
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While FX – along with partners in crime TNT and AMC – has honed its crime-story skills with sharp characters and combustible, yet sensible, story arcs, the old (lets say “aging”) networks are turning out the flabby, doughnut-eating beat cops of crime drama.
There are no gimmicks in “Justified.” Our hero can’t see the future, talk to ghosts, or magically tell if someone’s lying. His stories aren’t “ripped from the headlines,” and he doesn’t plunk evidence into the science machine to track down bad guys. He’s just a good man trying to make sense of a moral morass where his quest for justice and order is challenged by complicated relationships and hometown loyalties and allegiances.
Season three of “Justified,” premiering at 10 p.m. EST tonight, continues the saga of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a homegrown Appalachian boy from Harlan County, Kentucky who thought law enforcement was his ticket out of the bottoms and hollows. Instead, his brand of back country justice – and a shooting eventually ruled “justified” – led exasperated Miami supervisors to transfer him back to Kentucky. Down home, Givens finds himself on the side of the law, opposite characters from his past struggling to scrape together any kind of prosperity from the hills, legal or not.
If this third season forges onward as powerfully as it opens with its first four episodes, it will be the best yet.
Season one introduced Givens and his county, stocked with characters so desperate and thoughtlessly violent they could have only come from crime novelist Elmore Leonard, who inspired the series. Season two saw Givens struggle against hometown moonshiners and corporate outsiders seeking coal riches.
That second season played a lazy card that could have been handled with more nuance – big corporations out to cheat the locals and destroy the land – but the homegrown crime family, led by matriarch Mags Bennett (Margo Martindle) stole, and saved, the season.
Season three wisely gets out of its own way and returns to the tested cops-and-crooks battle of good vs. evil. Olyphant shines as a lawman with a smoldering swagger that rivals Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan. Without a populist, borderline political stand against corporate greed, season three makes for a better storyline as Givens faces murderous big-time organized crime that cranks the evil-o-meter to 11.
The supporting cast in season three gets more room, too. Jeremy Davies shines as dimwit, hard-luck crook Dickie Bennett, and Nick Searcy plays Givens’ harried supervisor with a resigned air that harkens back to crime classics of the past. He’d fit right in shouting “You’re a dinosaur, Callahan, turn in your badge.”
The season’s newcomers promise to be welcome additions. The minor characters (a menacing hit man nicknamed “Ice Pick” and scraggly-bearded Memphis marijuana wholesaler) flesh out with remarkable economy. The bigger players, backcountry warlord Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) and dapper underworld enforcer Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), will be rich foils for Givens and the hometown miscreants.
And finally, FX deserves praise for bucking the network TV trend of ditching opening theme songs in a quest for a few more seconds of advertising time. “Justified’s” opening theme song “Long Hard Times to Come” by Gangstagrass sets a gritty, hick-hop tone with a blend of urban beats and bluegrass banjo just as FX matches Curtis Stigers and the Forest Rangers’ “This Life” to the outlaw biker series “Sons of Anarchy.”
A show isn’t a show without a theme song. The networks that brought us a lovely lady who could take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile would do well to remember that. Those were the days.
Those same networks would also do well to remember how to deliver a good cop show, and spare us the parlor tricks. “Justified” does just that.