Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Justified: A Damned Good Show!

Season 2 of the exceptional FX series “Justified” (Wednesdays 10pm & more) starring Timothy Olyphant premiered February 9th and it’s one of the best series on television.  It appears to me that most of the intelligent filmmaking done anymore is in the 1 hour tv dramas series like “Madmen,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos,” etc, which is a sad state of affairs.  But let’s be thankful we at least get 13 good episodes of quality, grown up stuff to watch a few times a year. Meanwhile Hollywood keeps cranking out costumed hero kidstuff and fratboy comedies more and more as American adulthood continues to be frozen in the Peter Pan syndrome. 

“Justified” is based on the short story “Fire In the Hole,” by the great Elmore Leonard, and his novels Pronto and Riding the Rap.  It follows the chronically lethal adventures of Stetson hat wearing U.S. “Marshal Raylan Givens,” played with a charming intensity by Olyphant, best known for playing “Sheriff Seth Bullock” in possibly my favorite show of all time, “Deadwood” (created & executive produced by David Milch).  On that show, Olyphant played angry hall monitor/straight man to the entire eccentric and twisted characters in the lawless, gold rush town of Deadwood.  Here it’s his show and he carries it with a nice ease coupled with Elmore Leonard’s penchant for humorously violent chaos.  He’s a modern day gunfighter in a world full of some badass and unlikely backwoods perpetrators.  

The opening scene of episode 1 takes place in Miami where “Givens” is sitting at a busy beachfront cafĂ© with his quarry, a fugitive drug dealer (played by local guy Peter Green, “Zed” from “Pulp Fiction,” whom I’ve had the “privilege” spending a few late nights drinking with…) As they sit at the table discussing if he’s going to give himself up, the self-described unarmed fugitive pulls on “Givens” and the marshal’s fast draw blows the drug dealer away, a justified kill. This event as with any maverick cop story lead to “Givens’s” superiors not being happy with the marshal and also puts a big bull’s-eye on him from the drug cartel.  The Miami hotshot gets transferred to Lexington Kentucky, out of the way.  There he takes on a hate crime case in the rural mining town Harlan, Kentucky that just happens to be “Raylan’s” hometown.  “Harlan County USA” is a famous, Oscar winning 1976 documentary about a violent coal miner’s strike in this depressed coal town. 

In his hometown an all black church is firebombed by some white supremacists and the prime suspect is his boyhood friend turned lifelong criminal from a clan of criminals “Boyd Crowder” deftly played Walton Goggins.  The slippery “Boyd” “likes blow shit up” with his rocket launcher.  “Raylan” arrests and shoots “Boyd” and takes him in but opens a whole can of worms with Boyd’s” family “The Crowders” who are involved in all kinds of mischief; meth, robbery, pot, hookers, guns and also do business with the thugs from Miami.  Goggins impressed many with his portrayal of  “Detective Shane Vendrell” on the hit show “The Shield.”  He has a slimy, redneck likability despite his sociopathic activities.  Throughout season 1, “Raylan” has to play a game of cat and mouse with this redneck crime family.  To add to the mess, the marshal’s estranged dad “Arlo” is a charmer who’s resided on the other side of the law all of his life much to son’s embarrassment.  To add to the Freudian angle, “Boyd’s” dangerous daddy “Bo Crowder” (played by bad guy stalwart M.C. Geiney) makes him look like a punter, he is criminal mayhem incarnate.  

The 13 episodes of Season 1 of “Justified” are all pretty self-contained with the thread of the “Crowders” and “Raylan’s” dealings with his past including a beautiful, bitter ex-wife “Winona” (Natalie Zea) and a new girl “Ava Crowder” (Joelle Carter) who killed her abusive husband who was another of the lawless “Crowder” bunch and a new target for them.  Several of Olyphant’s fellow “Deadwood” actors sparkle throughout season 1 including Ray McKinnon (the weird “Reverend” from “Deadwood”) as a truly unorthodox hit man sent from Miami to kill  “Raylan.”  The “Deadwood” angle helps with the general vibe of the show, echoing the deadly goings on with some truly eccentric characters and situations.  However Executive Producer/Writer Graham Yost (“Speed,” “The Pacific”) expertly keeps the tone loyal to the masterful style of the great writer Elmore Leonard.  Clearly evident is his mantra for the show, “what would Elmore do?” Season 1 is available on DVD from Sony. 

“Justified” has the pedigree of great and entertaining movies that have come from the typewriter of Elmore Leonard including “Get Shorty,” “Jackie Brown,” “3:10 to Yuma” (filmed twice), “52 Pickup, (filmed twice, once as “The Ambassador” which the shyster producers didn’t pay for and is the basis for Get Shorty), “The Tall T,” “Out of Sight,” “Hombre,” “Valdez is Coming,” “The Big Bounce” (filmed twice), among many others. 

Leonard has received pretty much every award a writer can get.  Stephen King calls him “the great American writer…” Martin Amis says, “that Leonard’s prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.”  Personally I think he creates really cool and fun characters which Leonard states take on a life of their own as he writes.  “Chili Palmer,” “Jackie Brown,” “Ben Wade,” “John Hombre Russell” and I think now “Raylan Givens” joins the roster of stellar Leonard characters. 

“Justified” definitely has Leonard’s touch in the mix, he’s one of the executive producers on the show that lends to the quality and I think it’s more than just a title.   

So Season 2 opens where Season 1 ends and ties up the loose ends.  He’s invited back to Miami by a superior but decides to stay put in Kentucky.  He seems to feel that he can make a difference in this depressed, backward place, Olyphant stated in some interviews.  He also has some remaining issues to deal with including his ex “Winona” and the wild “Ava,” not to mention a free “Boyd Crowder” and his old man. 

As Episode 1 titled "The Moonshine War" progresses, his African-American colleague “Rachel” (Erica Tazel) is assigned to an anonymous tip about a convicted child molester “Jimmy Earl Dean” on the loose back in the Harlan County township of Rabbit Holler.  She asks “Raylan” to assist because she’s “not comfortable with these people in coal country…” There’s a terrific scene between 14 year-old “Loretta” and the pervert where she eludes the creep, problem is, the perv works for the legendary “Bennett” family who are former moonshiners who are now big time pot growers.  The “Bennett’s” and “Raylan’s” family have a long history from back in the days of moonshinin’. “Loretta’s” widowed father is growing weed on the “Bennett’s” land and they aint too happy about it, and it gets even worse when they hear of his call to the feds about the perv bothering his daughter.   

In their search for “Jimmy Earl Dean,” (“never trust a man with three first names,”) they encounter the kindly matriarch of the “Bennett” clan “Mags Bennett” played by the wonderful character actress Margo Martindale (best known for playing Hilary Swank’s white trash mom in “Million Dollar Baby,” also "Dexter" ).  Two of “Mags’” sons, “Dickie” and “Coover” are some colorful hillbilly burnouts who like to play with guns and bear traps, the other son is the top cop in Rabbit Holler.  The battle lines are being drawn and it’s going to be a real donnybrook between “Raylan” and the “Bennetts” this season.  Did I also mention that “Boyd Crowder” is on the loose too…. 

This appointment television my friends if you like good writing, characters, action and acting.  Justified, Season 2 Wednesday’s at 10 and other times on FX.  

This is my second entry in this blog and I really appreciate that you've taken the time to give it a look.