FX has built such a strong reputation for layered, uncompromising dramas (thanks to the likes of The Shield, Rescue Me and Sons of Anarchy) that people take for granted the network’s latest dark drama, Justified (Tuesdays, 10 p.m.), will be similarly sophisticated and engrossing. Justified is the story of U.S. marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), an old-fashioned lawman who wears a cowboy hat and engages in quick-draw contests with the fugitives he’s charged with apprehending.
When Raylan shoots a little too quickly in one of those showdowns, he’s bumped from his gig in Miami and forced to head back to his home state of Kentucky, where his new jurisdiction includes the backwater town in which he grew up. There he confronts his white-trash past as well as former friend Boyd Crowder (The Shield’s Walton Goggins), who’s gone from working in a coal mine to drug-dealing, bank-robbing and spouting white-supremacist rhetoric. The pilot expertly explores Raylan’s conflicted feelings about his past and sets up a seething rivalry between the calm, calculating Raylan and the unhinged, impulsive Boyd. It also ends with fairly tidy resolutions to most of the plot points it introduces.
And then comes the second episode. The drop in quality is jarring enough, but it’s the quick turn from tangled Southern crime epic to rote police procedural that’s toughest to adjust to. Goggins shows up for a minute or two, and he’s billed as a recurring player, so presumably he’ll be lurking in the background until Boyd and Raylan have another showdown in the season finale. That brief appearance aside, though, Justified morphs into the kind of drama regularly churned out by TNT and USA—a mildly entertaining, generally self-contained crime-solving show anchored by one well-crafted character.
Olyphant’s performance as Raylan is excellent, even when he’s just tracking down some generic fugitives, as he does in the episodes that follow the pilot. Those episodes aren’t any worse than a given installment of Burn Notice or Leverage, but they’re so bland, so devoid of flavor that they don’t belong in the same league as other FX shows, or even Justified’s own pilot.
Maybe it’s just a rocky start, and the show will get past the one-off crime stories to return to its ripe master narrative. But more likely this is FX’s version of the drop-in show, something that will play well with episodes shown out of order, that’s not a must-see so much as a watch-if-it’s-on. Justified works fine on that level, but it clearly could have been much more.