Correction: Earlier versions of this review described the fictional lead character, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, as a football player during a youth growing up in Harlan County, Ky. The character, created by novelist Elmore Leonard, is known for playing baseball in his youth. This version has been updated.
As “Justified” returns, the troubled (but hot!) Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is still in pain from a gunshot wound he got in last season’s bloody shootout with the drug-running Bennett clan. We find Raylan back at the firing range, glowering as he watches his shots go wildly askew.
It’s a telling moment, because as “Justified” enters its third season Tuesday night on FX, the acclaimed series seems dangerously close to missing its mark. “You want this to get ugly?” a drug kingpin growls early on. “It can.”
For those unfamiliar with the show, “Justified” follows Olyphant’s lawman, whose itchy trigger finger got him reassigned from Miami to the hills of his native eastern Kentucky. It’s based on an Elmore Leonard novella called “Fire in the Hole,” and the prolific crime author serves as executive producer.
Although beloved by critics and fans since its 2010 debut, “Justified” made good on its promise only well into its riveting second season, as Raylan found himself reluctantly re-immersed in the simmering blood feuds between his family and other clans in Harlan County — something he had long ago tried to escape. The season’s standout performance by Margo Martindale, who played the Bennett clan’s matriarch, Mags, with sap-tinged malice, won her a much-deserved Emmy.
But Mags is gone after downing a poisoned gulp of her own homemade moonshine, as are two of her three loutish sons. That leaves much of the drug trade in Harlan County up for grabs and a big, fat script vacuum to go with it.
As a fan of the first two seasons, I was curious about what Leonard and the show’s creator, Graham Yost, have in store. I thought it might be difficult to top the Bennett saga, and after watching the first four episodes of this new season, I fear that assessment might be right.
“Justified” has been at its best when Raylan gets out of what’s meant to be Lexington— it’s actually filmed in Santa Clarita, Calif. — and up into the “pretty green trees and cut-off mountains” of Harlan County. That’s Raylan’s description of the place where he grew up, played baseball and dug coal. In the past, the writers have populated the hollers with folks like the Bennetts, who seem to have sprung up as organically as bluegrass.
As the third season opens, Raylan is stuck at a desk job, struggling to heal, although he won’t stay there for long. The papers he’s pushing might as well be the first few episodes’ scripts, filled as they are with plots and characters standard to almost any broadcast crime drama. There are Mexican narco thugs, a Mafia foot soldier hiding in the witness protection program and a new crime boss from Detroit (“Band of Brothers” actor Neal McDonough, with his usual blue-eyed intensity), who comes to Kentucky to start an Oxycontin syndicate.
Worse yet, along comes Karen Goodall (Carla Gugino), a high-ranking U.S. Marshals official from Washington and one of Raylan’s former conquests. Gugino looks and acts like she arrived in Kentucky directly from the set of “Entourage,” on which she played a Hollywood studio executive to much better effect. It’s true that Gugino is incandescently beautiful, and it’s nice to have an age-appropriate foil for Olyphant, who is in his 40s. But seeing her wield a semiautomatic pistol while wearing taupe platform heels, breasts a-jiggle, makes me cringe.
When the show finds energy, it is with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Raylan’s perpetual nemesis — a white supremacist turned born-again Christian turned crime boss.
The two are perennially engaged in a cat-and-mouse game that neither seems obliged to win — Raylan shoots Boyd in the heart but just misses; Boyd saves Raylan’s life when it would have been easier to let him die. Indeed, the show could be seen as an extended buddy story, a bromance of sorts. Boyd gets under Raylan’s skin worse than his own kin, like his no-account daddy (Raymond J. Barry) or his ex-wife and current love, Winona (Natalie Zea).
“At any point when you were looking at that gun thug,” Boyd needled Raylan after the ill-advised Miami shooting that forced him home, “did you see your daddy’s face?”
The show begins to rouse from its torpor when Boyd sets about taking control of Harlan County’s criminal trade and launches a hunt for missing money Mags left behind. Her surviving son, Dickie (Jeremy Davies), gets swept up in a prison break and wants the money, too. With Raylan again in pursuit, the show has nowhere to go but up.
Despite the wobbly start, there’s no cause to give “Justified” a thumbs down — fans will still like it and, historically, the writing has been too darn good. And “Justified” has the potential to do for the hollers of Harlan County what “The Wire” did for the streets of Baltimore.
Newcomers should lay hands on Seasons 1 and 2 to get a feel for “Justified’s” arresting blend of shoot-’em-up mayhem and Southern Gothic charm. Last season’s finale — when the rival clans sat down for a “parley” summit in a church even as the hills exploded in violence — is as fine a bit of writing as you will see on television.
As for this season, we’ll see where it goes. Right now, the hype ain’t justified.
(one hour) returns Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.