Tuesday, 25 May 2010


At the end of the first episode of Justified, deputy US marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) has showed up at his ex-wife Winona's house in the middle of the night, scaring her current husband. As they stand on her porch, Givens, who has been transferred back to his home state of Kentucky after provoking and winning a showdown gunfight with Cartel killer in Miami, allows as how he has just come to realise he is angry. 'Angry?' she says. 'You're the angriest man I've ever known.'

That moment was a perfect definition of what Justified, based on the character Elmore Leonard used in two novels and one short story, was trying to do, and it's not strictly speaking, Leonard's own territory. Leonard's heroes like Givens, or Carlos Webster, are not as much angry as self-aware. It's an older-fashioned attitude, one you might have seen echoed in Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, a sort of 'man's gotta do' mentality. It may seem like a fine line, but you can see the difference between Leonard's Givens, whose miner father died of black lung, and the version created by Graham Yost, where Givens' father, as yet unseen after the first three episodes which I've seen on Britain's Channel Five, is both a con-man and a strong-arm thug. This puts Givens' own working as a boy in the coal mines into a different sort of context, most likely one in which his father was in jail. It also suggests issues of both disappointment and abuse beyond the strictness and straps of an older generation. But an angry Givens, with something to prove to the world, is a far different character from one who has to prove things only to himself, and that's where the nub of the difference lies.

The show's first episode was busy trying to define the character, get him back to Kentucky, and set up the rest of the cast. In the second and third programmes, much more of the Leonard feel came through, not as much in Givens as in the criminal characters. In fact, I thought Yost's script for the second show, 'Riverbrook' may have been as good an adaptation of Leonard as almost any, even though it wasn't an adaptation per se. There were moments of pure Elmore; the woman being held hostage complaining about wasting money on breast implants, and politely thanking the woman holding her hostage when she says how nice she thinks they are. The casual incompetence of the hostage-takers, and the kidnappers in the third programme, is exactly what makes later Leonard in particular flow so well, and the show captures it nicely.

There's also a nice contrast between Winona (Natalie Zea) and the appealingly trashy Ava (Joelle Carter, left, looking a bit like Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown), who's shot-gunned her husband to death in the first episode, and somehow is released and back in the crime scene dining room quickly enough to be flirting with Raylan, a siren trying to lure him back into the Kentucky he tried hard to avoid. But there's a subtle reminder here, because even as we contrast Eva with Raylan's ex-wife Winona, we recall that Winona has, like Raylan, returned to Kentucky, from which she wanted to escape every bit as much as he did.

That contrast also appears to be setting up a parallel of sorts between Rayland and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), his childhood friend who's the villain of the first episode 'Fire In The Hole', which was the title of Leonard's original story, but who is allowed here to survive, with the intent, it would seem, of making him Raylan's evil alter-ego. Those are the strong points of the structure. Otherwise, there is a certain generic quality to the set-up of the Lexington US Marshal's office, you've seen it in a million cop shows, and unless they can drum up some bureaucratic conflict for Raylan pretty quickly it is going to become stale.

But the show will succeed or fail on Timothy Olyphant's performance, and at times I wonder if he's just that little bit too attractive and little bit less steely than he needs to be. The show-down in a Miami restaurant which opened the first show was a bravura set-piece, and he carried it off with real flair, but it also reminded me not a little of Deadwood, where Olyphant faced the same kind of challenge; there he also played a pleasant, attractive man who might well be concealing an anger against life's circumstances, and who needs to display a vast reservoir of determination. He was at odds with Ian McShane's more demonstrative villain, but there is always the sense that he is just a little too nice, or too soft. Or maybe too small. Small in the sense of better suited for the small screen, without the gravitas that would make him naturally master of the role. The way Justified is building, he will have to be the strong silent presence at times, and he will have to be the steely gunfighter at others; he can do the latter, it is the former that is the question.

Oddly enough, I came to Justified and Luther at the same time, you can see my take on the latter here. Idris Elba would seem, on the face of it, a more commanding, larger presence than Olyphant, yet where the original set-up has led to more interesting stories and more development in Givens' character, in Luther the set-up has remained unchanged, same conflicts, same types of stories through its first four episodes. Luther too is an angry man, though his anger expresses itself through tantrums of frustration at being able to express it. Givens' anger, on the other hand, gets expressed through action. So though I had immediate reservations about both, I've already come around to Justified, and have much higher expectations for the rest of the series.

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