Monday, March 22, 2010

'Justified' has makings of a new crime classic

Property The Daily Gamecock

FX’s atmospheric, gritty and engaging new crime drama, “Justified,” feels like it’s drawn from the pulpiest of crime novels and the classic works of Western fiction. Its pilot, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” is one of the most promising and riveting of the 2010 season. If properly developed over its first dozen episodes, FX could have a bone-crunching law enforcement drama on its hands.

U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, stoic but controlling in what could be a powerhouse leading turn) murders a gunrunner in Miami. Though he feels justified – the other man drew first – the brutal murder lands him a re-assignment to Harlan, Ky., his old hometown.

Harlan, with its rundown homes and insulated culture, is designed to look like a modern-day pioneering town. Its main source of income has been coal mines; Givens mined coal as a young man, enforcing his ties to the community.

The local law enforcement has also run into problems with a group of eo-Nazis who insist on terrorizing the town. They are the outlaws, the renegades, dressed largely in black and insisting on a righteous philosophy of violence.

Though pilot writer Graham Yost enjoys playing with backwater stereotypes, he rarely condescends these characters. If anything, the gangs are treated as an efficient and powerful organization, bombing churches and terrorizing with shotguns.

And then there’s Givens, the cowboy with a past, the man of violence and rage who hides it all behind an icy exterior. In his dark jacket and broad white cowboy hat, Olyphant gives all the rugged dialogue a cryptic groove.

The pilot has Givens tracking down and trying to expose a friend from his mining days who’s now turned into a neo-Nazi thug (Walton Goggins, who comes packed with a terrifyingly likable violent streak). Along the way, he runs into people from his previous life in Harlan – including his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea, who sets up a character with a great deal of potential depth in the pilot).

As the pilot for “Justified” comes straight from Elmore Leonard’s prose, it gets all the benefit of his effectively drawn characters and his gift for dialogue that can both zing and purr. The plot rolls, but it’s really the program’s atmosphere that gives it weight.

Both a straightforward cop drama by way of an old West philosophy and a surprisingly ethnographic dissection of Harlan’s people and their complex relationship to society, “Justified” is able to deftly make Givens’ return to the town a homecoming and a classic fish-out-of-water scenario.

It also hits hard, with several moments of suspenseful stare-downs leading to dramatic spurts of violence. In the best tradition of the Western, “Justified” is all about the forces of good taking down the throngs of evil with a fast shot.

That its first hour manages to ignite the characters and the environment in such vivid and varied ways is a very hopeful sign for the show, which has a 13-episode run for its first season.

As long as Timothy Olyphant towers so tall in every moment of “Justified” — and as long as the show resists the urge to feel like a by-the-books cop drama, where catching the criminal is less important than what the action means in a broader sense — it should stand head-and-shoulders above any kind of procedural broadcast show.

Freed as it is on cable from the confines of broadcast network censorship, it surges forward with a bite, a rhythm and a vibe all its own. “Justified” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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