Justified: Welcome to Harlan County

Justified: The Complete First Season (Sony)

My vote for the best new series of 2010 opens as an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” starring Timothy Olyphant as a U.S. Marshall with a frontier approach to justice (the film opens with him giving a drug lord a day to get out of town and pushing the meeting into a shoot-out—the other guy draws first so the shooting is “justified”), and then uses it as the source to extend and expand the character’s story.

Timothy Olyphant: Cowboy justice in the modern world

Olyphant’s Raylan Givens is the cowboy of a lawman who gets demoted from his Miami posting and sent back to Kentucky, the home he thought he’d escaped once and for all, in the fall-out of cowboy justice. His new boss (Nick Searcy, a sharp leader with a laid-back manner) isn’t exactly thrilled with his arrival—Raylan’s daddy (Raymond J. Barry) is a local hood and his old buddy Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins of The Shield fame), a former coal miner turned explosive expert and gun runner, is currently masterminding a reign of terror in town (no wonder he left home)—but he has a wary affection for Raylan. Even when he ends up blowing a major case by dating the chief witness, the adorable, honey-smoked local beauty (and widow of a crime family figure) Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter). Just to complicate matters, Raylan’s ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) works for the D.A.

Graham Yost developed the show and scripted the first episodes and brought Leonard on board as an executive producer. The credit must more than honorary because his sensibility infuses the show, from the bad decisions that humanize (and at times sabotage) Raylan to the complicated relationships that tend to perplex his life to the mesmerizing odyssey of Boyd Crowder, from terrorist in a white-supremacist organization to prison preacher to evangelical cult leader with an army of former convicts waging war against the backwoods drug trade. The question of whether his conversion is genuine or cunning ploy adds to the dramatic tension and the enigma of the character, but Goggins plays him with the passion of a true believer: an avenging angel using the tools of his past and a scorched-earth campaign of redemption.

Well written, superbly cast and anchored by the effortlessly magnetic Olyphant, this contemporary western of family grudges, backwoods meth labs and interstate crime deals in rural Kentucky pairs up nicely with the other great genre gumbo on FX, Sons of Anarchy. And it’s the best role and richest character that Olyphant has played since Deadwood, one that leans on his easy manner, his lanky physicality and his slow-burn intensity. Raylan Givens is a man with his share of flaws and bad decisions, but you never question his dedication and you never underestimate his commitment.

13 episodes on three discs on both DVD (in a box set of two thinpak cases) and Blu-ray (in an extra-wide case with a hinged tray), with cast and crew commentary on four episodes. The pilot commentary alone, by executive producer/episode writer Graham Yost, director Michael Dinner and actor Nick Searcy, is more interesting and informative than the last three feature film commentaries I worked through as part of my reviewing diuties. The 18-minute “What Would Elmore Do?” leads us through the process of scripting the show, from adapting Elmore Leonard’s original short story to expanding the characters and carrying on the story, while maintaining Leonard’s voice and sensibility. The shorter featurettes “The Story of Justified” and “Justified: Meet the Characters” are more conventional introductions to the show and the characters.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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