LOS ANGELES — You have to wonder if the pitch for FX’s new tough guy drama “Justified” included the phrase “think ‘McCloud’ meets ‘Dexter.’”
Based on the Elmore Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole” with its popular I-only-shoot-to-kill protagonist, “Justified” is a May/December marriage between TV crime fighters. Like Dennis Weaver’s iconic Sam McCloud, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is a plain spoken fellow, with a big cowboy hat and no time for fancy pants bantering. But like Dexter Morgan, Givens also believes that there are some folks out there who will just never learn.
“Justified” is how Givens feels about sending these thugs to their maker for some barely legal but morally righteous reason or other.
Either way, as played by Timothy Olyphant, Givens is a charmer, no doubt about that. And if the damaged anti-hero is beginning to wear out his welcome, Olyphant makes “Justified,” which premieres Tuesday, a fine and upstanding addition to FX’s gallery of mangled mavericks. Givens might shoot “Rescue Me’s” Tommy Gavin just to make him stop talking, but it would be only a flesh wound.
We meet our hero in a steely face-off with a Miami killer whom he has given 24 hours to get out of town. The result prompts an internal investigation in which Givens’ defense — “He pulled first, I shot him” — gets him reassigned to eastern Kentucky where, it will surprise no one to learn, Givens was born.
Within minutes of his arrival in Lexington, he discovers that his ex-wife has recently returned as well, and by gosh, she works right there in the courthouse. As for that Aryan terrorist local marshals are pursuing, heck yeah, he knows him. “Boyd and I dug coal together when we were 19,” he tells his new boss, Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), who thought that might just be the case.
Now, Kentucky may not be the largest state in the union, but it is home to more than 4 million souls, so this is pushing it, even for a television pilot.
Still, it’s as refreshing as a glass of sweet tea to watch a show set somewhere outside the traditional East Coast/West Coast metropolitan areas, and writer/executive producer Graham Yost (Leonard serves as executive producer as well) certainly has a musical ear — the easy rhythm of the dialogue makes it difficult to dwell on things like plot contrivance. Olyphant and Searcy in particular go at it like top-ranked graduates of the Robert Duvall Academy of Prairie Poets.
“You look the same as you did at Glenco,” says Mullen. “Same coat, same boots ... ” “The boots are fairly new,” replies Givens.
Chasing Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, who co-starred with Duvall in “The Apostle”) brings us slap up against the larger theme of “Justified”: Though Givens clearly trades on his down-home demeanor, he still fears those scraggy, strangling small town roots.
And well he might. His first trip back to Harlan takes him past the screen door of Ava (Joelle Carter), one of those down-market Southern sirens who always seem to be daydreaming half-naked on the front porch or shooting their abusive boyfriends. Having done both, Ava, like Boyd, reminds Givens not only of whence he sprung but to where it would be far too easy for him to return.
“Justified” isn’t all skinheads, chifforobes and moonshine. It’s also a semi-traditional criminal procedural. In early episodes, Givens leaves the dirt roads of Harlan to capture an escaped convict and locate a convicted mob money launderer who years before gave him the slip. Along the way, we meet ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and fellow deputies Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel), one of the few women unimpressed by Givens’ charms.
“What do you think would happen if I came to work wearing a hat like that?” she asks, and she certainly has a point.
Fine character actors abound, playing people on the rural edges, but it’s the main character and Olyphant’s performance that lift the sometimes labored plot lines and carry them over the finish line. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Givens is a man fighting not only his past but his present. His sense of justice, and his dead quiet ability to enforce it, are all part of a masculine ideal last seen riding off into the sunset with John Wayne and Gary Cooper.
And Givens is beginning to realize that a sense of fair play is not the only reason he’s so quick on the draw. Though not as creepy as Dexter’s code, Given’s rules make it far too easy for him to dispatch where he might arrest. He admits to Winona that he would have shot the guy in Miami even if he hadn’t drawn first.
“I guess I never thought of myself as an angry man,” he says looking genuinely baffled. His ex-wife laughs. “Raylan ... you are the angriest man I’ve ever known.”
In the end “Justified” is another of TV’s many Broken But Brilliant Men — really, these guys deserves their own Emmy category — but it appears it’s going to be a good one.