Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A eulogy for “Justified,” the most underappreciated drama of our time

Adam Epstein
April 14, 2015
The SopranosBreaking BadThe WireMad Men. These are the prestige television dramas that most say form the foundation of the 21st century’s “Golden Age of Television.” But those four shows don’t tell the whole story.

Justified might not be one of the pillars of TV’s Golden Age, but it too, was great—at times, transcendent, even. But it often feels like no one watched the show, placing it squarely in the realm of great TV shows like The Wire that somehow flew under the radar when first on the air, and relied instead on its few loyal fans proselytizing to their friends to convert them into fans.

A victim of the Golden Age that spawned it, Justified was routinely overshadowed by other cable dramas, in both the ratings and awards departments. It gradually lost viewers after it premiered in 2010. Just 1.8 million people watched the penultimate episode; 5 million people watched the second-to-last episode of fellow FX show Sons of Anarchy.
It was nominated for the sporadic Emmy, winning only twice (for actors Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies, both well-deserved) and, inexplicably, never received a nomination for best drama. Justified was also a critical darling, but that apparently failed to translate to awards glory, even as shows that were not as consistently acclaimed, like Showtime’s Homeland, racked up nomination after nomination.
Nor did Justified ever ignite the internet buzz machine the same way a show like Breaking Bad, or another excellent FX series The Americans, did. (When’s the last time you read a Justified think piece, or visited the show’s page on Reddit?) Admittedly, the show’s central premise—a US marshal who plays by his own rules returns to his hometown in the Kentucky hills—is not quite as compelling as a chemistry teacher turned meth magnate, or a group of figuratively lost souls literally lost on an island with polar bears and a smoke monster.

Justified was never quite as influential as some of these other Golden Age shows—it was a product of the new TV environment, not necessarily a contributor to its creation. Nor was it even all that innovative. The show began with a fairly generic “bad guy of the week” format before morphing into a heavily serialized saga in its second season. And even then, Justified wasn’t wildly transformative. Its spiritual forebearers, The Shield and Deadwood, had already explored its themes of revenge and forgiveness, of home and family, of loyalty and betrayal, years before the show aired.
So if it wasn’t influential, and its plot wasn’t very innovative, and its themes were well-trodden, what made Justified worthy of its place on the Mount Rushmore of 21st century TV dramas?

To say nothing of its uniformly excellent writing and acting, Justified was, perhaps more than any other show, one that knew precisely what it was and what it wanted to accomplish. It was always perfectly comfortable in its own skin, and despite a few missteps along the way, it refused to be anything other than its strange, funny, verbose, serpentine self.

Based on a character by the late novelist Elmore Leonard, Justified told the story of Deputy US marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) as he is reassigned to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky after shooting a criminal in Miami—the result of his fabled quick draw. Raylan’s childhood friend, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), has grown into a criminal mastermind of sorts, a silver-tongued chameleon as Alan Sepinwall aptly calls him, a man who is always 10 steps ahead of everyone else and can talk his way in or out of any situation imaginable. The two men share a witty rapport even as they remain enemies—they both know they share a history, that they’re two sides of the same coin, two kindred spirits who will always have Harlan running through their veins for as long as they still draw breath.

Olyphant and Goggins were both born to play these roles, assisted in no small part by the deft writing of creator Graham Yost and his team of scribes. They, too, stormed out of the gate with a serious advantage, having the writings of Elmore Leonard—who liked the show and frequently consulted with the producers until his death in 2013—from which to derive ideas.
Even as the show took us through the tragic pits of rural poverty and the criminal underworld of Appalachia, it was always funny. It was funny because it never took itself too seriously—it figured out a way, as no other show other than Breaking Bad ever did—to at once reconnoiter with the darkest depths of our society and show us the comic absurdity of it all. In that way, Justified was innovative, it was quite unique, but not in such a pronounced manner that it could be mentioned alongside the other transformative shows of the era.

Justified could stay so confident and robust for six seasons largely because of its constant additions of fascinating supporting players. (The aforementioned Martindale played pot tycoon and family matriarch Mags Bennett; Davies played her fidgety son Dickie.) So many shows add supporting characters that turn out to be poorly developed, or they opt not to add any at all precisely because it’s so hard to do them right. But when it came to secondary characters, Justified could (almost) do no wrong. From the rollicking mafia man turned informant Wynn Duffy, to the ruthless Robert Quarles, to this season’s leathery, magnetic big bad in Avery Markham (Sam Elliott, another actor born to be on Justified), the show’s recurring characters—its villains, especially—were rarely thinly written, and always a ton of fun.

I say rarely because the fifth season of the show was what can be best described as a creative misfire. Michael Rapaport, who played the main villain that season, was the show’s first and only serious miscasting. The plot, normally intricate and layered in the best way possible, became unnecessarily convoluted in the same way that many shows that are on the air for so long tend to do. Even at its worst moment, Justified was still a good show—certainly better than most—and it’s miraculous that the show didn’t fail much more than just once, given how fearless it was at taking familiar TV conventions and turning them on their heads.
Justified was never appointment television for me (I watched it on DVR or on-demand), but that’s probably because I never had anyone to talk about it with. I always made sure to read a review or two, to at least feel like I was part of some conversation. But the truth is, that conversation never really existed, at least not in the way that it should have.

The show was not part of the television zeitgeist. Actually, it wasn’t very popular by any standard. But it was so very good, and so very fun, and it didn’t really care about being anything besides those two things. I can only hope, that in a few years, more people will come around to it, and then we’ll become collectively annoyed when people act as though they’ve “discovered” it, just as they do with The Wire. I long for that annoyance.

So long, Justified.

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