Tom Shales reviews FX's 'Justified'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; C05

Raylan Givens, U.S. marshal, is one lean, lone, ornery hombre.

Actually, he's more like one of many, because the stereotype is anything but scarce in TV and movies. So when you meet Givens in the premiere of the FX series "Justified" on Tuesday night, you might feel overwhelmingly underwhelmed.

Oh, another muttering existential hero who barely ever registers an emotion; what a revelation! The fact that the character was created by Elmore Leonard, one of the series' executive producers, doesn't really help.

As played by tightly wound, casually handsome Timothy Olyphant (who had a roguish mustache in "Deadwood"), Givens does look darn good in his jeans and his spotless, cocky cowboy hat. He walks the walk, all right, but he talks way too much of the talk, as do most of the other characters in the mannered and self-conscious series premiere. Although the marshal is a crack shot, he seems more interested in talking varmints to death than in fillin' 'em full of lead.

The first impression made by the series is particularly disappointing because it was produced for the FX network, where standards aren't artfully high but where the specialty is edgy, cryptic, potty-mouthed dramas that mutilate the old proverbial envelope ("Nip/Tuck," "Damages"). Although "Justified" qualifies as cryptic, and its mouth is plenty potty, it definitely lacks edge, the most important quality of the three.

In fact, it can get downright sleepy between killings. It moseys. It meanders. You might want to shout, "Git along, little doggie!" The narrative stops in its tracks for long, stretched-out scenes that are remarkably uneventful. Fairly early in the premiere, Givens drops by the house of an old girlfriend, Ava Crowder, played with near-satirical sultriness by Joelle Carter in a clinging dress that knows how to cling. The two talk, and flirt, and talk. Meanwhile, in another part of town, a pair of Neanderthals stages a bizarre daylight robbery, which writer-producer Graham Yost and director Michael Dinner show in considerable detail.

The robbery scene ends as the junky getaway pickup truck zooms down Main Street, and we cut to -- what? Good grief, back to Ava's house, where the pair are still blabbering on and still nursing drinks. Much the same thing happens in the second episode, airing next week: Givens is preoccupied with his personal life while no-good mangy polecats commit more crime.

"Justified" opens with a blast of violence. There's a rather witty shot of Marshal Givens from the back, a visual echo of the old opening sequence from "Gunsmoke," but instead of being out on the lone prairie, our cowboy is in Miami, meeting a sleazy hooligan in a kind of cabana. The powwow ends abruptly, loudly and bloodily, and the marshal, dressed-down by superiors the way mavericks always are, is redeployed to his old stomping ground, Harlan County, Ky., where they do some of the slowest stomping in the hemisphere.

The population consists largely of rednecks and good old boys who speak their Elmore Leonard-like dialogue in an irritating hillbilly drawl. Olyphant does his best to make the character of Givens attractive, enigmatic and wily. He doesn't raise his voice, he just raises his gun, and only after a long hunker-down with whomever he intends to shoot. His aim is so good that he can hit a target one millimeter or so from the heart.

Givens's charm has its limits, however. It seems an old boyhood friend, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, or Detective Shane Vendrell Shane from "The Shield"), brother of sultry Ava, has gone bad, stinking up the countryside with hate. We see him fire a grenade into an African American church. His living quarters are decorated with swastikas. Yet in the two men's long (long, really long) discussions, such subjects as racism, fascism and vicious ignorance barely come up. Givens shrugs it all off, which apparently is supposed to make him totally cool. Cool, schmool -- he's half-idiot. That isn't existential; that's pestilential. Cheerfully tolerating racism isn't much better than practicing it.

Givens could be a true hero only to a society that can envision no more damaging a pejorative than "uncool." That's right -- a society like ours, except that even if he is tailor-made for the 20-tweens, Givens doesn't seem likely to become a popular hero or the subject of a best-selling personality poster. For one thing -- right! -- he doesn't have enough personality.

The FX network, in a spirit of good citizenship, has slapped a "TV-MA" rating on "Justified," which as it happens is justified -- by the bloody bursts of violence and all the trashy-talk, more explicit than what a commercial broadcast network could get away with. It's another example of the non-level playing field on which the networks must compete, although being able to utter, fairly frequently, the four-letter slang word for "poo-poo" doesn't seem like such a liberating advantage after all.

At times, "Justified" veers close to parody -- a parody of itself or a spoof of taciturn heroes who speak softly (albeit at length) and carry big guns, and maybe have a hankerin' for the school marm. In this case, however, Marshal Givens doesn't meet the school marm and so will apparently settle for the Village Slut. That's somehow what "Justified" is -- not tawdry, really, nor sleazy, but just slutty -- the kind of show not to take home to meet the family.


(70 minutes) premieres Tuesday night at 10 on FX.

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