Elmore Leonard's work has, over the last twelve years, tempted television network executives on a few occasions. There was 1998's Maximum Bob, which aired only seven episodes on ABC. ABC tried again with Karen Sisco (the Miami-based U.S. marshal played by Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight), starring Carla Gugino and Robert Forster; the series lasted ten episodes in the 2003-2004 season. Both critically-embraced series were worthy attempts at bottling Leonard's style of humor-tinged crime fiction, but neither found an audience. Leonard and his fans are hoping the third time's the charm with the darker Justified, a crime drama that's made a home on basic cable network FX. Unlike a Big Three network, FX eagerly embraces content with rough edges, having found a niche with tough-minded series like The Shield and Sons of Anarchy.
Justified also deals with a U.S. marshal. Stetson-sporting Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant of Deadwood) gets a defining entrance when, in broad daylight, he strides up to a Miami drug kingpin and tells him it's his last chance to get out of Dodge (so to speak). The ample warning culminates in a quick-draw that, while technically "justified" as a clean shoot, forces Raylan's boss to relocate him to the last place he wants to go: back home to Kentucky. Though his new office is in Lexington, the action often takes him off the map into the seedy sprawl of Harlan County. Adding injury to insult, Raylan's homecoming coincides with the decimation of a black church by an old friend of sorts whose favored weapon is now a rocket launcher. That'd be Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins of The Shield), who once worked the coal mines alongside Raylan but now specializes in mayhem and bank robbery. The pilot episode hews closely to Leonard's sizeable short story "Fire in the Hole," and does a fine job of limning the complicated relationship between two former peers now on opposite sides of the law.
That not-unique dynamic and the clear use of Western tropes could easily come off as hackneyed in other hands, but Justified shares Leonard's love of character, dialogue, and situation drama, and nicely evokes its master's voice. Credit showrunner Graham Yost, whose writing career (including big-screen credits for Speed, Broken Arrow and Hard Rain) eventually found him more at home on television, whether it be prestige mini-series (From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, The Pacific) or well-regarded network flops (Boomtown, Raines). With a tight writing staff and the increasingly popular luxury of producing a baker's dozen episodes instead of over twenty, Yost is able to give Justified's first season something close to the novelistic shape viewers have come to expect from pay-cable series and mini-series. Though some episodes have the self-contained feel of a weekly network cop drama, perhaps what's most striking is the series' scruffy disinterest in latching on to any one formula.
Justified only partly buys into the obvious hook of the "case of the week" for the U.S. Marshal's office, where Raylan works for Chief Deputy Art Mullen (a terrific Nick Searcy) and with Deputy Marshals Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel). Yost establishes the latter two just enough for us to want to know more, but shows considerably more interest in the hazier social and moral lines that run through Harlan County. Raylan's reluctant love life is nothing but complicated. He strikes up with torch-holder Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), who only recently made herself an ex-wife by using a sawed-off shotgun; worse, she becomes the only witness in a shooting by Raylan that comes under investigation. Raylan's return also brings him into the near vicinity of his own ex-wife, Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), who's remarried but not necessarily inaccessible.
The inspired decision to deviate from "Fire in the Hole" and spare the life of Boyd Crowder gives the series a core of duality in exploring Raylan and Boyd as they compare and contrast. Boyd's brush with death sets off a religious conversion (complete with preaching to followers) that may or may not be sincere, while Raylan's moral authority isn't as certain as one might expect: seemingly eager to kill, he's pegged by Winona as "the angriest man" she's ever known. The underpinnings of the younger men's violence owe much to their criminal fathers: Arlo Givens (Raymond J. Barry of Interview with the Assassin) and Bo Crowder (M.C. Gainey of Lost). As the first season makes clear, there's enough daddy issues here for a month of Sundays, and certainly several seasons of crackling tension.
Sony does right by Justifed, starting with crisp hi-def transfers that improve even on HD-broadcast quality. As designed, color is muted but striking, and contrast is spot-on: daytime scenes look as poinpoint clear and detailed as they should, and the frequent nighttime or shadowy scenes show off the deep blacks and image clarity that hold hi-def so far above standard def. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes maximize the source material, with equally sharp clarity and powerful delivery of the frequent gunshots (and occasional explosions) in every ammo-happy episode.
Disc One includes commentary on "Fire in the Hole" with series creator and writer Graham Yost, director Michael Dinner, and Elmore Leonard's research assistant Greg Sutter. On Disc Two, "Blowback" comes with commentary with Yost and writer Ben Cavell, and "Hatless" with actors Olyphant and Zea and writer Dave Anderson. Disc Three hosts the "Bulletville" commentary with Yost and writer Fred Golan.
Disc Two also includes three spoiler-laden featurettes; watch these only after viewing all thirteen Season One episodes. "What Would Elmore Do?" (18:48, HD) includes interviews with author Elmore Leonard, Yost, and his writing staff, as they discuss the ways in which the TV scribes strove to stay true to Leonard's work, the ways they thoughtfully diverged, and the nature of Leonard's characters and patois. Not so worthwhile are the quick overviews "The Story of Justified" (4:52, HD) and "Meet the Characters" (4:52, HD), but they give a chance to hear from the cast.
Disc Three also houses a couple of spoiler-alert featurettes. "Shooting for Kentucky" (16:07, HD) focuses on the efforts to recreate Lexington, Kentucky and Harlan Country in location, production design, cinematography, and costume, while "The Marshals" (12:46, HD) offers some historical perspective on the U.S. Marshals. Last up are the music video for theme song "Long Hard Times to Come" by Gangstagrass and a successfully tantalizing tease "Season Two: A Look Ahead" (1:49, HD).
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